Healthy food on wheels
Like many other residents of a Dorchester housing complex, Toni Cromwell does not have a car and described the distance from her apartment to a grocery store as “quite a walk.”
Cromwell and her neighbors aren’t the only Boston residents living in what is referred to as “food deserts” — areas with limited access to healthy food — as Northeastern graduate Joshua Trautwein discovered.
About a year ago while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital Charlestown HealthCare Center with the Fitzgerald Youth Sports Institute, Trautwein asked families for feedback on a program he conducted on promoting wellness and healthy eating at home.
“One of the moms came back and told me she learned a lot, but it was still pretty difficult for her to shop for healthy food on a regular basis because she didn’t live near a grocery store,” Trautwein said.
Trautwein also learned that it took some Charlestown families up to 45 minutes to get to a grocery store and that many turn to corner stores, which offer higher prices and processed foods.
Trautwein’s findings led him to partner with business-savvy friend Daniel Clarke to launch Fresh Truck, a mobile farmers market that travels to areas like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan to sell fruits and vegetables for a price about 20 percent lower than the average supermarket, according to Clarke.
Clarke admitted he really didn’t understand “food access” and “food deserts” until he discovered a report that pinpointed areas in Boston that weren’t close to grocery stores — and the prevalence of diet-related health illnesses in those areas.
“The correlation was almost one-to-one with how bad food access was and how bad the diet-related illnesses are in that community,” Clarke said. “It really bothered me that it was such a huge issue going on in my back yard and I didn’t know.”
After coming up with the concept, Trautwein and Clarke entered a business planning competition sponsored by Boston Rising where they were granted $5,000 in support of their idea.
The duo also launched a campaign through Kickstarter — an online crowd-funding resource — through which they were able to raise $32,000, which covered the renovation and operation of Fresh Truck.
They also received donated service from MAACO in Dorchester for paint service and a Dorchester refurbishing company for the build-out of the mobile store, which was originally a school bus, Clarke said.
Produce-filled baskets line the inside of the bus while baskets hang on the outside for those who prefer to shop outdoors.
About 80 percent of the produce offered by Fresh Truck is staple fruits and vegetables and the other 20 percent vary based on the tastes of the neighborhoods being served that day, according to Clarke.
“[On Wednesdays] we go to more Latin-based communities so we’ll have papaya, yucca and different types of mangoes,” Clarke said.
One of Fresh Truck’s Wednesday stops includes the Gallivan Boulevard townhouses where Cromwell resides.
The co-chair of the Gallivan Boulevard tenant association searches for deals before food shopping and says the produce sold at Fresh Truck is dollars cheaper than in supermarkets.
“The grapes are $2.50 a bag for a 2.5 pound bag,” Cromwell said.
Convenience and affordability aren’t the only parts of the Fresh Truck experience that has impressed Cromwell.
Cromwell said Clarke and Trautwein offer knowledge about healthy eating and have been open to suggestions from residents.
“It’s good all the way around,” Cromwell said. “I’m glad they’re there.”
Residents living at Mishawum Park in Charlestown have similar stories about Fresh Truck.
“[Trautwein] is constantly interacting with them while they’re there,” said Kristin Brophy, resident service manager at Mishawum Park. “Seeing what they can do to make their experience better. He’s very open to feedback and always looking for input from the residents so they get what they’re looking for.”
Most of the food sold by Fresh Truck comes from the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, where supermarkets and produce wholesalers purchase their fruits and vegetables, Clarke said.
Trautwein and Clarke also work with Allandale Farm in Brookline and connect to other local farms through a local hub aggregator called OR FoodEx that Daniel describes as a one-stop shop for anything that can be sourced locally.
Fresh Truck follows a social business model. Profits are placed back into fulfilling Fresh Truck’s mission of offering healthy foods at affordable prices to increase healthier living in food desert neighborhoods.
As Fresh Truck enters into its third month in business, Trautwein and Clarke are working on expanding their food choices to include healthy carbohydrates like granola bars, bread, nuts, grains and trail mix.
Trautwein said expanding the inventory would allow families to access all the different foods they need to achieve personal health.