Alana Babington and I pored over a map of Greensboro, N.C., divided into wobbly little shapes by bright, bold yellow lines. The yellow lines started in the center of the city and stretched outwards toward more suburban areas, covering at least a quarter of the map. As interns with the Mobile Food Oasis Farmer's Market, Mark Smith, an epidemiologist with the Guilford County Health Department, had invited us to a meeting of the area's Hunger Task Force to learn more about different efforts aimed at alleviating hunger in Greensboro. As we studied the shapes and pointed to the areas in which we lived, worked and shopped, we realized that the bright and cheery yellow lines were indicative of something much darker: these were the boundaries of food deserts, areas in which there is limited to no access to affordable, fresh, healthy food.
In the past several years, Greensboro has consistently been ranked among the top cities in the nation with the greatest food insecurity. But in 2015, the Food Research & Action Center named Greensboro-High Point area the hungriest city in America. Greensboro has 24 food deserts and is the only city with over 25% of the population reporting food hardship. So I began to understand the urgent need for effective solutions to combat the area's hunger epidemic.
Enter Mobile Oasis Farmer's Market. Our goal is to provide access to fresh, local affordable produce to low-income families. But instead of asking people to block out three hours of their day to take three different buses to the grocery store, Mobile Oasis brings its produce right into the heart of the poorest neighborhoods in food deserts. Aside from its locational flexibility, Mobile Oasis also offers customers an incentive to use their SNAP/EBT (food stamp) money at the market. When customers use SNAP/EBT to purchase Mobile Oasis produce, they receive vouchers redeemable at the next market matching the amount they spent, effectively doubling the value of their money. This not only encourages people to use their SNAP/EBT on healthy produce rather than fast food, but it also encourages people to make return visits to the market. The market isn't out to make a profit, but rather to provide reliable locational and economic access to healthy, high-quality food.
As I became more involved with the market and spoke with different team members about the project's vision, I came upon the realization that the work we were doing with Mobile Oasis was considerably more valuable in the eyes of the area's poor compared to discussions about hunger and poverty. In a classroom, we sit down for an hour or two and propose how best to remedy people's hardships. But the hypothetical situations posed in discussions lack that sense of urgency that instigates real, effective and creative action. In a discussion, it is appropriate and sometimes encouraged to admit that we don't know how to solve a problem. But for the single, homeless, jobless mother of three whom I watched spend three hours on the phone trying to find more than $104 to feed her family for the month, telling her that we don't have a solution is not good enough. Asking her to talk to us about it won't do much to solve her crisis. She needs to find food and a safe shelter in which to raise her children. She doesn't need a conversation: she needs action.
The Mobile Oasis team is not only talking about what Greensboro's hungriest needs and wants: they are doing something about it. They order the freshest and healthiest produce, and even started an urban garden in Greensboro's poorest neighborhood so that people in the area can literally watch their food grow. They note customer's requests for lower prices, greater selection, and more convenient hours of operation. For us as interns, the team quickly became role models, then mentors, then friends.
People often come together over food: lunch meetings, dinner parties, holiday meals. But this summer, I saw how food unites people in a different way. At the market, we met people from all backgrounds, races and socioeconomic statuses. But they were all buying the same produce. They were all supporting local farmers by buying food grown down the road from their neighborhoods. They were all willingly spending their money, in whatever form they had, on healthy, high-quality foods and making an investment not only in their health, but also in their community. The Mobile Oasis team recognizes that, regardless of community status, everybody eats. And shouldn't everybody deserve to eat well?