Running a mobile farmers’ market is hard. We should know. We did it for several years.
Trying to balance costs, handling fresh produce, marketing, and everything else took a lot of energy. We tried to figure it out as we went. But slowly, all of that stuff took us away from our original mission of improving food access.
It’s no wonder why some mobile farmers markets fail. They all start from a good place and with good intentions. Sometimes the logistics of it all can take over. It can feel overwhelming, and well, just not worth it anymore to keep on trucking (so to speak).
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are so many reasons why mobile farmers’ markets are needed in communities across the country. So many reasons for organizations to use a mobile market to help people living in food deserts access healthy food.
With the right resources and training, mobile farmers’ markets can thrive, and in turn, can help their communities thrive too. And that’s definitely not a fail.
The Origins of the Mobile Farmers’ Market
Picture yourself traveling along the Silk Road in Asia 5000 years ago. A merchant approaches you selling something you’ve never heard of before: an apple. Now imagine biting into that sweet, crunchy apple for the first time. Pretty awesome, huh?
The idea of selling food on the road is part of ancient history. Food carts and vendors traveled for miles selling or trading their food and bringing new kinds of foods back to their communities.
Bringing food to where people live, work, and play made sense back then, and it still does now. Obviously, we need food to survive. And if we can’t get to it, then it’s great when people can bring food to us. Besides, we all love convenience nowadays, don’t we?
But, what makes mobile farmers’ markets different from food trucks, vendors, and stands is that they specifically target food deserts.1 They aren’t in it for profit or selling the latest food craze.
Mobile produce markets make a point of selling healthy foods to people that don’t have access to healthy foods.
In the last two decades, mobile farmers’ markets have been popping up all over North America. We started seeing them back in the early 2000s.
In the last few years, over 50 communities, and counting, had mobile farmers’ markets serving up fruits and veggies to people who couldn’t otherwise get fresh produce.
Where Do Mobile Farmers’ Markets Fit Into the Food Security Puzzle?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 13.7 million households in the US were labeled “food insecure.”2 Over 19 million people experienced low food access.3 Millions of Americans aren’t able to buy or provide healthy food for themselves or their families.
The pandemic has only made things worse for so many more people. Just like that, jobs were lost and people were laid off. Some of the people who contracted Covid-19 and passed away were their household’s main, or only, source of income.
Because of the pandemic, millions more Americans have to rely on food banks and similar organizations.4 And 42 million Americans now rely on SNAP to help them get food on their tables.5
Globally, supply chains are still having trouble keeping up.6 It’s not that there’s suddenly less food in the world than before the pandemic. The problem is that there’s no one to process, package, and ship food around the world.
This has caused real supply and demand problems and driven up the cost of food like crazy. So, how can you afford more expensive food when you aren’t even able to work because of a pandemic? It’s sadly ironic.
The pandemic has taught us many lessons and exacerbated many issues all around the world. Hopefully one of the take-aways is that people start to understand that we can’t always rely on the global supply chain for our goods.
We need to be more adaptable and self-sufficient, especially in times of disaster.
A lot of regions across the country have the ability to strengthen their local food systems to reduce the impacts of disasters on their residents. Mobile farmers’ markets can be a part of that solution.
What Are the Advantages of Mobile Farmers’ Markets?
The pandemic, severe natural disasters, and political instability that we see in the news and on the internet every day are all sobering reminders that we need to keep finding ways to support humankind.
Finding ways to support your community is a great place to start. Local food systems focus on strengthening the journey of your food from field to fork, all within your own region.
Local farmers need to be able to have a place to sell their produce. And the locals need to be able to have a sustainable source of healthy food. Mobile produce markets can help make it all happen.
By their very nature, they can be much more flexible than other food providers. Probably the best thing about mobile markets is that they go where they’re needed the most.
When a grocery store closes people have no other choice but to try and get to the next closest store. This can be hard for people who don’t have a vehicle or access to affordable and safe transportation.
Organizations with mobile markets can help to fill the gap of shutdown grocery stores so that people don’t fall through the cracks. It makes it easier for people to get their fruits and veggies instead of having to go to a convenience store or fast food joint.
Their Ability to Be More Flexible and Adaptable
Mobile produce markets can adapt their schedule and their prices more to meet the needs of their customers. This is important, seeing as their goal is not necessarily profits, but to increase healthy food access.
As a mobile market operator, you want to be able to stay flexible and adaptable. Keeping in tune with the needs of your customers will help you to stay viable and continue helping your community.
Do people need you more on the weekends, or in the evenings? Do you offer discounts to lower-income families? Shifting to meet these needs will ensure that the community continues to support you too.
All of these things are a lot easier to adapt to when you have a mobile market versus when you’re in a building. Mobile farmers’ markets also offer a great way for you to stay in touch with the people you serve.
You’re not stuck in a back office somewhere crunching numbers. You’re out talking with your customers, listening to their needs, and providing support.
The social aspect of mobile markets also helps boost mental health too. A lot of people who rely on food banks and similar organizations for food assistance often feel alone and isolated.
Regular visits to your mobile market give people a chance to socialize, share with others, and feel happy just being around other people. How often do you feel that way at a regular store?
Recipe swaps, cooking demos, and promoting healthy eating are some of the other benefits that mobile farmers’ markets offer that most other food retailers don’t.
When you go to a regular grocery store usually the first thing you see is a sale display full of chips or cookies. Of course, most people will grab the sale items over heading to the produce section.
Where grocery stores do a poor job of removing temptation, mobile markets offer only fresh healthy food. Actively promoting healthy habits gets everyone eating a little healthier. The more healthy people there are means less of a burden on an already taxed healthcare system.
Why Some of Them Fail
Ok, so if mobile markets are so amazing then why do some of them fail? When they struggle to stay viable, they abandon their core mission altogether. But when asked why, or what went wrong, the picture becomes a little clearer.
Most of these organizations don’t have strong marketing backgrounds. They rely mainly on word of mouth. Word of mouth is a very useful tool. But, if you fail to advertise widely in today’s business climate, your potential reach will be very limited.
Having the basic marketing skills to know how to effectively advertise your mobile market is a great tool for non-profits to have. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have a big marketing budget either.
There are lots of ways to advertise and market yourself. The trick is to know where to advertise and how to do it.
Remember we talked about how mobile markets tend to be more flexible than other food retailers? It’s a great advantage, but unfortunately, some mobile market operators don’t make the most of this.
Often, it’s a question of resources and trying to juggle the needs of as many people in need as possible. You can’t be in all the places all of the time. It means tough decisions might need to be made.
One study found that most mobile markets usually operate during normal weekday business hours.7 A quarter of them operated on Saturdays, and only five percent held markets on Sundays.
It’s not exactly ideal for their target clientele.
Mobile markets also try to get around as much as they can. Meaning they only stop for two or three hours at a time. This might not be practical for their buyers’ needs. Usually, those who lack healthy food access are often the same people who work long hours and multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Identifying the Solutions to Your Challenges
Sometimes, finding solutions specific to the challenges of your mobile market operation requires a little help. It’s all about finding the right balance to keep your market running so you can keep helping the people who depend on your services.
As an example, some mobile markets are approaching their cause in an interesting way. Some are “mix-and-matching”. Fresh2You Mobile Market8 calls it the “Robin Hood” approach.
Profits from higher sales areas (like in front of businesses and in high-income neighborhoods) help subsidize the cost of bringing markets to disadvantaged areas. It’s a great way to keep produce affordable while at the same time keeping the mobile market viable.
The key is to continue being flexible and adaptable as much as you can. At The Farmers’ Truck, we’re all about helping you find ways to maintain your mobile farmers’ market, to keep it an essential part of your mission as a whole.
We have the tools and experience to help you with program modeling, marketing, training, and much more. Mobile farmers’ markets are a great way to provide everyone with fresh, accessible food.
With the right support, your mobile farmers’ market won’t fail. It will continue to be a successful part of your organization’s mission for years to come.
We believe in a holistic approach to keeping your mobile market running. If you need help with this, get in touch with our team. The Farmers’ Truck wants to make sure that your mobile market thrives so your community can thrive too.