October 25, 2014

New approach to serving food deserts

An innovative approach to serving food deserts in Madison could serve as a model on how best to address the problem of connecting residents with fresh, healthy foods. The Freshmobile Initiative is the brainchild of Jeff Maurer, whose Maurer’s Foods owns and operates Madison Fresh Market, located downtown near the University of Wisconsin campus. Maurer was inspired by visits to the Boys and Girls Club in the Allied Drive Neighborhood. “A nine year-old girl asked me what “a little blue thing,” was. It turned out to be a blueberry,” said Maurer. “She had never seen one, nor had she ever tried one before. It was heartbreaking.”

Determined that no nine year-olds not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Maurer tried several strategies to connect Allied residents to healthy foods, before hitting on the Freshmobile. “We have a non-profit status, and the fact that there’s very little overhead, since we don’t have rent, heat, lights or taxes, we can afford to keep the prices much lower than what you’d typically find in a grocery store,” Maurer explained. “The key is for us to provide a quality product, at very affordable prices.”

It took more than a year and a-half for the Freshmobile to go from Maurer’s concept, to the reality of the refrigerated, fully stocked grocery trailer which had its ribbon-cutting in the parking lot of the Boys and Girls Club on Thursday. “He had to jump through to many hoops,” said Allied Dunns Marsh Neighborhood Association President, Selena Pettigrew. “He’s such a determined person. The average person would have said “forget it, it’s not worth it, I’m not going to do it.'”

AUDIO: Bob Hague reports (1:15)

The refrigerated trailer (Maurer hired an Allied Drive resident to drive the truck which pulls it) will visit Allied and five other Madison neighborhoods currently under-served by grocery stores. The last grocery in the neighborhood, a Cub Foods, closed in 2009. Residents, many without access to transportation, either make infrequent trips to grocery stores in Madison and Fitchburg, or make do with limited selection and less than competitive prices at local convenience stores. “A food desert is such a huge problem, and it’s really an intractable one,” said Alderman Brian Solomon, who represents the Madison portion the Allied neighborhood. “This is such a great innovation, and hopefully it will be great way to resolving that problem throughout not only the city, but maybe eventually the country.”

Now that Maurer has built the Freshmobile, will residents come? “That’s the biggest concern I have,” he said. “If they don’t they are crazy,” said ADMNA’s Pettigrew. “I hope we give Walgreen’s and Mobile a run for their money. They’ve got competition now.”