In 2008, the Mayor’s Council on Children and Youth found that kids in lower-income Boise neighborhoods didn’t have access to safe, quality after-school programs. The city created a Mobile Recreation Unit in response. Every summer, a van travels through neighborhoods including areas on the Boise Bench, near Veterans Memorial Parkway and in Redwood Park. It offers free, supervised, drop-in activities for kids near their homes.
This year, the Mobile Rec van will have a co-conspirator in making Boise neighborhoods healthier.
Beginning June 8 and continuing through Aug. 21, a refrigerated mobile market will travel along with the van. While kids play, their parents will be able to shop for farm-fresh produce. The project is a collaboration between Boise Parks and Recreation and the Boise Farmers Market. The latter, which operates on Saturdays during the summer at 10th and Grove, will provide the fruits and vegetables.
“We’ve realized being a stationary place, once a week, a few months during the year, is a really inconvenient way to shop. I’m the first to admit it, though I’ve been shopping at farmers markets since 1985,” said Janie Burns, owner of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa and chair of the Boise Farmers Market board.
The mobile market concept isn’t new. Cities such as Washington, D.C., Indianapolis and Boston have experimented with mobile markets to deliver fresh food to neighborhoods — in a couple of cases via repurposed school buses. Locally, the Idaho Foodbank operates mobile pantries around the state, most recently at the Mallard Pointe senior housing complex in Garden City. Members of 96 households took home fruits and vegetables, along with yogurt and meat.
“What we think is unique about ours is that a for-profit market is operating it,” Burns said. It’s more common for nonprofit organizations to operate mobile markets that serve economically challenged neighborhoods. Burns wants to provide easier access to healthy, local food, but she also wants to build the market’s customer base.
“We can guarantee food is from local farms for customers and provide another place for farmers to sell,” Burns said.
The price of produce at the mobile market will be comparable to the prices at grocery stores.
Pieces of a puzzle
The new mobile market fits with the city’s larger health promotions, including council member TJ Thomson’s Healthy Initiatives 2.0, which aims to curb childhood obesity, and a new city partnership with Boise Urban Garden School, said Roseanne Swain, Boise recreation superintendent.
“All of these programs fit together like a puzzle,” she said.
One more puzzle piece recently came into play: The Boise City Council approved a proposal on June 2 to offer a match from city coffers of up to $10 per purchase of SNAP, or food stamp, benefits. Recipients will be able to use that money at the mobile market.
Swain discounts the idea that interest in farmers markets is the reserve of more affluent residents.
“I’ve heard from parents who live in apartment complexes who garden and want to buy fresh food, but they may be bound by public transport,” Swain said.
Parks and Rec was among the participants at the 2015 Creating Healthy Communities Summit at Boise State University in April.
“The premise of the summit was collective impact, finding ways for organizations to collaborate rather than people doing the same work, stepping over each other,” said Jean Mutchie, a manager at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, one of the presenters of the summit, along with High Five! and Saint Alphonsus Health System.
Access to healthy food was one of the foundations of a healthy community discussed at the summit, Mutchie said. A project like the mobile market is one example of a healthful, efficient collaboration. The market, and the recent approval of city matches for SNAP benefits, will open more possibilities for organizations to work together, Mutchie said.
“Let’s take this another step. Let’s give people recipes. Let’s make the recipes available in Spanish,” she said. “A project like the mobile market can take existing resources and create real outcomes.”
Burns said plans are afoot for Eat Smart Idaho to integrate its programs into the mobile market. Eat Smart is a food and physical activity education program for low-income Idahoans through the University of Idaho Extension.
The mobile market itself is a repurposed trailer that had been rusting on Burns’ property for years.
“If nothing else, farmers are resourceful,” she said. “We realized there’s not a lot of good cold storage available to farmers. We decided to take apart this old trailer, insulate it, and add air conditioning.”
Burns enlisted her nephew Earl Swope, a graduate student in art at Boise State, and his undergraduate students to paint the trailer. It’s pale blue, painted with familiar building shapes, and boldly colored fruits and vegetables. One day, the trailer will have interchangeable panels painted with imagery from the neighborhoods it visits. Staffers will switch them out depending on location.
“I hope it’s cool. It’s not just a trailer. It’s celebrating the city,” Burns said.