Will a mobile farmers market work for your community?

Lessons from the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ Veggie Van.

Mobile farmers markets are popping up all over the U.S. according to the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program. Mobile farmers markets are vehicles, usually refrigerated trucks, filled with locally-sourced produce and fresh foods that sell these items in communities or neighborhoods that have limited access to locally-produced, healthy foods. Mobile farmers markets are running in urban neighborhoods in some of the largest cities in the U.S. and in rural towns that cannot support a community farmers market. In addition to providing people with access to these fresh, healthy foods, mobile farmers markets also create a new avenue for sales and advertising for the local farmers and food producers whose items are sold in these venues.

In 2011, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids launched its mobile farmers market called The Veggie Van with grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Additional financial support for The Veggie Van was secured from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Michigan Department of Economic Development and the Redwoods Group. The Veggie Van is the only mobile farmers market currently operating in West Michigan. SNAP, WIC, Senior Project Fresh/Market FRESH, cash and credit/debit cards are all acceptable forms of payment at the YMCA’s Veggie Van.

Sara Vander Zanden serves as Coordinator of the Veggie Van and Manager of the YMCA’s agricultural programs. She provides this advice to organizations or communities thinking about starting a mobile farmers market:

  1. Build strong and strategic partnerships with host sites: The Veggie Van stops at 20 scheduled sites per week, and each one has a designated host-site coordinator. Engaged coordinators who are invested in the project are essential for the Veggie Van’s success. Seek sites that are highly trafficked by the same people each week such as retirement communities, schools or places of work, as opposed to retail establishments. Have a repertoire of marketing tools, such as posters and fliers, weekly e-newsletters, a presence on social media, promotional events and informational presentations, and let your host-site coordinators elect which strategies will work best for their site.
  2. Source high-quality produce and products: The Veggie Van is special because it brings high-quality, locally-sourced products into communities with limited access to good food. Source high-quality products from trusted suppliers, and stand behind your product. Make sure your customers know that quality is guaranteed, and that if they are ever unsatisfied, you will replace their product or offer reimbursement. It is much cheaper to replace a pint of raspberries than to lose a customer, or worse, lose the trust of an entire site because of one person’s poor experience.
  3. Prepare for a time-consuming, costly and extremely rewarding project: Operating the Veggie Van successfully, and ensuring that it has maximal impact on the community, is not a part-time gig. It requires the investment of time, money and passion on behalf of the coordinator, drivers and parent association. The work is rewarding and worth the investment, but like nurturing a child, it truly takes a village.

Financial sustainability appears to be a challenge for many mobile farmers markets as most receive grant funding or other private contributions. Some mobile farmers markets are selling fresh produce wholesale to restaurants, schools, hospitals and corner stores to expand sales. In the case of the Veggie Van, the YMCA’s goal is to reach financial sustainability after its third year of operation. Mobile farmers markets have proven to be a successful tool to increase healthy food access in many urban and rural communities.

The Community Food Systems Workgroup from Michigan State University Extension is working to support projects that grow the local food system. Contact a member of the Community Food Systems workgroup to receive research-based information to organizations interested in starting a mobile farmers market, food hub, or some other local food project. To locate local farms near you or to access market research information for food businesses, try using Michigan MarketMaker

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