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Tevlin: Couple’s goal is to bring healthy food to poor neighborhoods

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 2, 2013 - 8:41 PM

Leah Driscoll clearly remembers the time in junior high when the most popular girl in the class wanted to borrow from her prepaid lunch card.

Driscoll would have been happy to share, but there was one problem: “I was a free-lunch kid” and thus couldn’t buy for her friend.

“The irony was my dad was a farmer,” said Driscoll, who is from rural Iowa. But a girl doesn’t live on soybeans and corn alone, and her father was not a wealthy farmer.

Driscoll’s husband, Mike Driscoll, also relied on food stamps as a kid. It’s what Driscoll calls “experiencing food insecurity.”

That upbringing, and a love of good food, has inspired the Driscolls to create a nonprofit that would bring fresh produce to “food deserts,” neighborhoods where residents rely mostly on convenience stores for their groceries. Those stores seldom offer quality fresh produce or healthy foods.

The Driscolls hope to get the Twin Cities Mobile Market on the streets by fall. They’ve already won some start-up money, more than $40,000, from Colonial Church in Edina, which funded six social enterprise start-ups from money the church received from a land sale.

The Driscolls have also launched a crowd-funding campaign to help raise the money to get up and running.

Oh, and if anyone has a used transit bus they want to donate, the Driscolls would be happy to see it.

Brian Jones, minister of mission and outreach for Colonial, said the church wanted to “do something fresh” with their gains.

“They are taking the issue of food deserts and driving right into the problem,” said Jones. “It really fits a need. The Driscolls are also capable and driven, and they really have a passion for this issue.”

Leah Driscoll works for the Wilder Foundation by day, so she’s familiar with nonprofits and the discrepancy of wealth and resources between communities. She studied food deserts for her master’s thesis, and decided to do “something more active” to bring better nutrition to poor neighborhoods. She thinks they can buy food at wholesale prices and sell it cheaper than the corner grocery store can.

Mike Driscoll is a woodworker, artist and self-trained chef, Leah said. “This is our second job, this is our baby.”

“We are both passionate about food,” said Leah, “and we realized not everybody has access to good options like we do.”

Driscoll found that the maps of food deserts pretty much matched maps that charted neighborhoods where residents had short life expectancies.

“People can’t make good choices if they don’t have access,” she said. Residents of food deserts have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, Driscoll said.

The Driscolls have studied other cities where a mobile markets exist, including Chicago’s “Fresh Moves.” But because they are a novelty in the Twin Cities, the couple have been trying to negotiate various regulations on food distribution. They are not a bricks-and-mortar grocery story, nor are they a food truck. So Minneapolis and St. Paul are working with them to establish rules.

The Driscolls have been working with local communities, such as the Latino Economic Development Center, and hope to start bringing healthy food first to St. Paul’s East Side, then expand quickly to north Minneapolis. They hope to eventually include nutrition education as part of the mission.

Leah Driscoll said Colonial Church’s investment was important, but perhaps more important has been the knowledge donated by church members.

Church members with expertise in running a business have given the Driscolls invaluable information. “We wanted to leverage that as well,” said Driscoll.

Her quest to create a mobile grocery store has stretched Driscoll’s time, as well as her knowledge base.

“I’m learning a lot about diesel engines,” she said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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