Mobile farmers market sees skyrocketing demand due to food insecurity, rising grocery prices

Ten minutes after closing time at the Fresh Moves mobile farmers market, a man approaches Timuel Jones-Bey hoping he still has time to shop on the shuttle bus before it’s packed up.

But the farmers market-on-wheels needs to make it to the other side of Bronzeville in time for the start of its next stop in just 20 minutes.

“We’re closed,” Jones-Bey says before adding, “but I’ve got a box for you.”

That interaction on a recent Thursday was repeated several more times over the next 15 minutes, with Jones-Bey never failing to leave a customer with an armful of fresh produce.

He knows or at least recognizes almost every customer, and his conversations are filled with laughter despite the ticking clock. His knowledge of their personal lives fuels his desire to send each away with at least some fresh food.

“Some people have certain issues,” Jones-Bey said. “Some people have blood pressure issues, diabetes, stuff like that. So knowing that ahead of time, when they come when we’re closed, we’re still trying to help them and service them with what they need.”

Jones-Bey and his other workers were left with mere minutes to make it to the final stop of the day. A line of customers was already waiting for the brightly colored bus emblazoned with images of produce and smiling faces.

Urban Growers Collective’s Fresh Moves runs five days a week and makes several stops — all at least an hour — at locations across the city’s South and West sides, including South Chicago, Avalon Park, Englewood and Fuller Park.

Timuel Jones-Bey, right, speaks to customer Dan Owen, left, as he checks out at one of the stops of the Mobile Farmer’s Market by Urban Growers collective on June 30 at 330 E. 51st St. in Bronzeville.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The affordable market has seen a skyrocketing demand for its goods. The amount of fresh produce ordered from the local farms it partners with has doubled.

Jones-Bey said the jump in grocery prices, combined with persistent food deserts — a lack of stores in some of the areas he services — has led to an increased need for his services.

“This summer is different,” Jones-Bey said. “We’ve seen such a response because the price of food is so high. Also, our fears of food security are actually becoming a reality.”

The “produce aisle on wheels,” which gets its fresh products from eight local urban farms and a local distributor, sells its food at prices that are usually lower than grocery stores. For example, Fresh Moves sells an avocado for 50 cents, while some stores sell them for nearly $3.

Employees say they see about 3,000 customers a week.

A partnership with the food company Barilla has allowed Fresh Moves to offer every customer a $10 voucher with each purchase.

Joshua Hughes, Fresh Moves’ operations manager, said he hopes the nonprofit can acquire a second bus to serve even more customers, ideally one bus for the South Side and another for the West Side.

The converted bus at one of the stops of the Mobile Farmer's Market by Urban Growers collective on June 30 at 330 E. 51st St.  in Bronzeville.

The converted bus at one of the stops of the Mobile Farmer’s Market by Urban Growers collective on June 30 at 330 E. 51st St. in Bronzeville.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago’s South and West sides have seen a number of grocery stores close in recent months, including an Aldi in Gresham and a Whole Foods in Englewood.

Two stops in Englewood are among the busiest for Fresh Moves. These areas, employees said, are in desperate need of access to affordable and nutrient-dense food.

More than 63% of West Englewood residents have limited access to food, according to the Chicago Health Atlas, and many South Side neighborhoods have a similar need.

Each stop on the bus’s daily routes was chosen with accessibility in mind for the residents who live nearby and are often outside health care facilities, community centers and CTA stops.

Customers lining up for their turn were eager to get inside.

“For my production, I have to come here,” Dan Owen said. “It’s a lot fresher, cleaner, and it tastes better. I love their greens.”

Access to food is “the right” of South and West side residents, Hughes said.

“Everyone should be getting their needs taken seriously by the government, but, as we can see, the world isn’t like that,” he said. “It’s honestly a Band-Aid for the problem.”

Becky Fair, a lead gardener at Bronzeville Garden, one of the mobile market’s suppliers, said fresh food should be available for everyone, no matter where they live.

“We don’t have places to eat. We don’t have places to get fresh produce,” Fair said of some communities. “So it’s just very important that we have those things for our people and our community that are not canned and that are fresh off the vine.”

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