Mobile farmers market sees demand soar due to food insecurity and rising grocery prices

Ten minutes after the closing time of the Fresh Moves Mobile Farmer’s Market, a man approaches Timuel Jones-Bey hoping he still has time to shop in the shuttle before it is full.

But the Farmer’s Market on Wheels has to get to the other side of Bronzeville in time for the start of its next stop in just 20 minutes.

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

This recent Thursday interaction repeated itself several 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 all the customers, and his conversations are filled with laughter despite the ticking of the clock. His knowledge of their personal life fuels his desire to send everyone back 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 in advance, when they come when we are closed, we always try to help them and provide them with what they need.

Jones-Bey and his other workers had only a few minutes to get to the last stop of the day. A line of customers was already waiting for the brightly colored bus adorned with product images and smiling faces.

The new movements of Urban Growers Collective operates five days a week and makes several stops—all at least an hour—at locations on the south and west sides of the city, including South Chicago, Avalon Park, Englewood, and Fuller Park.

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

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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

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

“This summer is different,” Jones-Bey said. “We have seen such a response because the price of food is so high. Moreover, our fears about food safety are actually becoming a reality.

The “fruit and vegetable section on wheels”, which sources its fresh produce from eight local urban farms and a local distributor, sells its food at prices generally lower than those of grocery stores. For example, Fresh Moves sells an avocado for 50 cents, while some stores sell them for almost $3.

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

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

Joshua Hughes, COO of Fresh Moves, said he hoped the association could 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 Mobile Farmer's Market stops by the Urban Growers collective on June 30 at 330 E. 51st St. in Bronzeville.

The converted bus at one of the Mobile Farmer’s Market stops by the 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, desperately need access to affordable, 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 daily bus routes has been chosen with accessibility in mind for residents who live near and are often outside of healthcare facilities, community centers and CTA stops.

Patrons queuing for their turn were eager to enter.

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

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

“Everyone should have their needs taken seriously by the government, but, as we can see, the world is not like that,” he said. “It’s honestly a band-aid for the problem.”

Becky Fair, head gardener at Bronzeville Garden, one of the mobile market vendors, said fresh food should be available to everyone, no matter where they live.

“We have no places to eat. We don’t have places to get fresh produce,” Fair said of some communities. “So it’s really important that we have those things for our people and our community that are not canned and fresh off the vine.”

James V. Payne