How One Woman Is Solving the Urban Food Desert Problem with a Grocery Store on Wheels

By: Julie Kendrick  |  May/June 2016
Leah Porter Driscoll is making Twin Cities food deserts fertile again with a tricked-out bus that delivers groceries to underserved neighborhoods.
Who She Is
Leah Porter Driscoll grew up on an Iowa farm, but lacked fresh fruits and vegetables in her own diet. "We were a low-income family in a rural area," she recalls. "We relied on government assistance, free school lunches and a food bank, none of which included healthy options." What she didn’t know then was that she grew up in a food desert, a place where residents have limited access to fresh food. Nearly 30 million Americans live in a food desert—a situation that has a large impact on one’s health. "It’s sadly ironic that our ZIP code determines our life expectancy," Driscoll says.
What She Did
While finishing a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Hamline University in Minnesota, Driscoll decided to come up with a final project that tackled food deserts. "It seemed like a solvable problem to me," she says. She researched mobile grocery stores—tricked-out semis, buses and trolleys selling food in underserved neighborhoods in cities around the country. Driscoll thought it was a good solution for the Twin Cities. After she graduated, she sought a way to make her dream a reality. The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a health and human services nonprofit organization, greenlighted the Twin Cities Mobile Market, naming Driscoll its manager. She spoke to nearly 1,000 community members about food choices, locations and timing for market stops. An old transit bus was retrofitted with coolers and shelves and took to the streets.
Why It’s Cool
The bus makes regular stops at 18 loca­tions in some of St. Paul’s poorest neighborhoods, allowing residents to rely on the Mobile Market for weekly groceries. It also brings food closer to where customers live, so they may not have to wrangle their groceries on public transportation. A second bus has just been added to serve Minneapolis sites. The project is already making a difference: recent surveys show 70 percent of Mobile Market shoppers have increased their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.