A farmers market on wheels aims to combat southern Dallas ‘food deserts’

By Amber Gaudet - February 14, 2021

Food Apartheid

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A farmer’s market on a bus is coming to neighborhoods in southern Dallas, with the COVID-19 pandemic slowing but not stopping the effort.

The idea formed a few years ago, when UNT Dallas biology professor Kelly Varga took her students to the Mill City neighborhood to help clean up a community farm. The woman who ran the farm told Varga she saw a need in her neighborhood for quality food and a healthy outlet for young people.

“I was shocked as a person coming from Chicago, where I’ve had access to multiple farmer’s markets, that really, the Dallas Farmers Market was the only one I knew of,” Varga says. “And no disrespect to the Dallas Farmers Market, but it wasn’t even the traditional version that I had seen in my hometown, which was very community oriented with lots of information about health and nutrition.”

While in graduate school at the University of Illinois, Varga learned about an interesting initiative to bring healthy food into neighborhoods that lack grocery stores.

“They took the equivalent of a DART big bus and they retrofitted it to be a grocery store that you go onto physically,” Varga said. “They would go into these food desert areas, and I thought that was just really awesome that people were serving like that in the community.”

“Food desert” is a the term the USDA uses to refer to areas that have limited grocery stores, with one-third of the population living more than a mile from a large grocer and dealing with other factors that affect access to healthy food, such as lower incomes and inadequate transportation.

Varga created Community Basket through a partnership between the University of North Texas at Dallas and Toyota, which aims to take fresh fruits and vegetables into such Dallas communities. Varga and her students held three preliminary events in fall 2019 at Youth World, Friendship West Baptist Church and Moorland Family YMCA, where they gathered feedback from community members, including the market’s name.

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The plan was to launch the mobile market in summer 2020 — then COVID-19 hit, creating concerns about cash handling and close contact with the public. With food insecurities heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Basket pivoted to a donation model, serving more than 2,300 families and individuals starting in April.

Many of its efforts have focused on Highland Hills, the southern Dallas neighborhood where Bonnie View Road is located. For one event, Community Basket partnered with Grow North Texas and Oak Cliff Veggie Project — with food from Wholesome Wave and wholesaler Ben E. Keith — to serve more than 250 people at apartments in the Bonnie View area.

Hunter Marion lives near Highland Hills in Lancaster, which he describes as a border between an option-rich suburban area and a “food swamp.”

“One of my best friends lived in Lancaster but didn’t have access to a car, so the only place he could get groceries was a 7-Eleven or a Dollar General,” Marion says. “He couldn’t get the best food, but just had to get what he could.”

Marion has worked on the Community Basket project since 2017 and graduated with a bachelor’s in public health in May. But as a white man, Marion says, he’s not the most representative of the southern Dallas community, which is predominantly Black and Hispanic — ethnicities that historically have had fewer grocery stores in their neighborhoods than their white counterparts.

“It’s a systemic layering of low socioeconomic status, which is compounded by race, which usually is compounded by health factors, and located in areas of really poor environmental justice,” Marion says.

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Poor health is common for residents of areas that lack grocery stores, partly because these areas attract convenience stores and restaurants that create “food swamps,” Varga says.

“Fast food industries are very much aware that food deserts exist, and they try to move in and capitalize on the fact that people tend to be in lower income areas, and tend to be households that are multiple family, and probably working multiple jobs,” Varga says.

“People in these areas have heavily stated, ‘I don’t want another Popeye’s or KFC. I’d much prefer to have a local-run store by somebody that I know that’s got good food inside,’ ” she continues. “People would probably be very shocked to find out there are lots of community members that are traveling an hour or 45 minutes to come into downtown Dallas to go to Sprouts or Tom Thumb.”

Community Basket will operate on a wholesale pricing model, charging just enough to keep the bus sustainable, Varga says. Their efforts are funded by a $268,000 grant Varga received from Toyota, which includes funds for student scholarships. The project relies heavily on student ingenuity.

  • Students in the UNTD School of Business created a business plan in fall 2019. They are exploring the benefits of a sliding scale model, pricing produce slightly higher in more affluent areas that don’t have farmer’s markets to offset costs for those with greater need.
  • Automotive students at Dallas College’s Cedar Valley campus retrofitted the donated DART bus that houses the market, which runs on compressed natural gas to keep emissions low.
  • Students from the UNTD SERCH Institute coordinated efforts with local farms and wholesalers to supply the market.
  • STEM students constructed data maps, looking at factors such as household income and EBT benefit enrollment to establish a route based on areas of need.
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When the market does launch, it will offer quick-grab bags for drive-through pickup to mitigate COVID-19 risks. Eventually, Varga hopes to return to a more traditional walk-up market model with open choice and community engagement, which she says is critical for the initiative to make a positive impact.

“A lot of individuals in these communities are promised a lot of things, and then they go away after a year or two roll-out,” Varga says.

Whatever the future of the project holds, Varga says the ultimate goal is to be a sounding board for the community.

“We want this to be a very transparent project, not just on the research side but going back to the City of Dallas and saying, ‘This is what your community members are asking for,’ ” Varga says.

This story is part of a project on potential solutions to food insecurity in the neighborhoods of South Dallas and West Dallas. It’s reported through a partnership of the nonprofit Dallas Free Press and The Dallas Morning News, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. For more information, email info@dallasfreepress.com.


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