After hitting a massive speed bump, the Dotte Mobile Grocer is back up and rolling around Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas.
Throughout 2018, the mobile grocery store had been ramping up to provide Wyandotte County residents with fresh, affordable, healthy food. Then, in a turn of events, the non-profit which managed its funds, lost all of its money.
“It was a dramatic experience trying to figure out where to go next,” Matt Kleinmann, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, said.
Matt had been working alongside the Wyandotte community since 2016 to co-design everything the truck would do – from what produce it would offer, how the shopping experience would be, where it would stop, to how it would look like.
As the truck remained parked indefinitely, Matt pondered: “we have a truck, we’re building it out, it looks great, what’s it gonna do now? who is gonna own this thing?”
Soon after, the Mobile Market Community Council (MMCC), made up of a collaborative team of Wyandotte County residents and community partners, stepped up and said “hey, we’ll own it.”
And so they built their own non-profit: Dotte Local Grocer; raised even more funds than what was lost, and got the truck back on the road.
“So now Dotte Mobile Grocer is a fully community-owned mobile market,” Matt said.
Promoting Health Equity
Across Kansas, the closing of grocery stores has left residents isolated from accessing fresh, affordable food.
More than 800,000 residents live in food deserts, and certain neighbourhoods have the highest incidence of Type 2 Diabetes, where on average, one out of four residents develops the chronic condition.
“20 years ago I was pregnant with my youngest son, and we didn’t have a grocery store down there. And we still don’t have a grocery store down there. So I’ve been able to watch over the last 20 years how things have not progressed,” said Kim Weaver, member of the Mobile Market Community Council, and now shared owner of the Dotte Mobile Grocer.
She describes the situation particularly severe to the northeast area of Wyandotte County, where a highway divides the community, depriving those living on the east side from accessing a regular supply of food.
As a result, the life expectancy on the east side of the highway is about 20 years shorter than the west.
Thus, the rolling grocery presents a unique opportunity to make fresh, affordable food more accessible to Wyandotte County neighbourhoods want that can’t easily get it, and in this way, promote health equity.
“Everything about the Dotte Mobile Grocer is community-driven. I love that about it because it’s not us telling the community what they should want, the community has a voice,” Kim said, “so we can make sure that [everything] is decided by Wyandotte County.”
More Than a Seat at the Table
Naturally, when the MMCC met with local graphic designers to build a brand, they gravitated towards an inclusive look and feel.
“We wanted it to be sensitive to our community being culturally diverse,” Matt explained.
But there was a feature on it, “a cute little pig,” that stood out to a Latino member of the community.
“He understood the diversity of the neighbourhood that he is a part of, which included people that would be looking for Halal meats. And if the Dotte Mobile Grocer had a pig on it, it would signal that it was carrying non-halal meats, which would turn those residents away from the entire experience.”
The pig was removed from the design to be more inclusive of Wyandotte County residents.
“The decisions made by the MMCC are done on consensus, but also on consent,” Matt notes.
With just one month on the road, the Dotte Mobile Grocer is already making an impact in the Wyandotte community.
Because of COVID-19, the mobile market has partnered with different organizations, such as Young Women on the Move and Kanbe’s Markets to provide fresh food.
The first day they rolled, they distributed 160 flats of food. With almost no advertising, those flats were gone within 37 minutes. The following week, they provided twice that. And they were gone within an hour.
“We know that the community is hungry and that they’re thankful for the food because that second week they were waiting an hour even before we opened,” Kim said. “We even have people asking when we are going to be available again.”
Seeing in a New Light
Reflecting on this year, Matt said he’s learning and appreciating that there are different ways to lead. When the mobile market had fallen apart, he remembers somebody at an event shared:
“When the lights go out, sometimes the best thing you can do is let the lights be off for a little bit. Let yourself acclimate and see what’s around you. And maybe that means you go in a totally different direction. It’s scary to do that, but sometimes it offers up new opportunities.”
“That story resonates with me because the initial intent of the Dotte Mobile Grocer would have been a single non-profit organization. The way it was framed was to try to ‘save the world’, ‘end hunger’, and do all these incredible, amazing things. Moonshot after moonshot,” he said.
“What I’m learning and appreciating is that it should not be one organization, it should not be one entity. It’s a lot of individuals and a lot of organizations that work together. They are committing, and organizing, and are collaborating by sharing funds, staff time, resources, and leadership.”
COVID-19 has forced us to turn off the lights.
“And mobile markets are leaders in this environment. But it’s not going to be because we are the one organization that does it. It’s because we build relationships and partnerships across the city.”
“That type of network, that kind of grassroots food system, is something that we’re starting to see emerge around us. And mobile markets can provide a critical piece of infrastructure in that model; how do we play a role in connecting people not just to food, but to each other? And that’s a really interesting thing that I’m excited to see more of.”
Check out Mobile Farmers’ Market Leaders in Increasing Healthy Food Access
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