In Rural Oregon and Washington, Healthy, Local Food Goes on the Road
Each weekend in the summer, staff of the Gorge Grown Food Network get behind the wheel of a box truck named George, which is full to the brim with produce grown by farmers from the Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon and Washington. The truck stops in rural communities that have difficulty accessing fresh, healthy foods. Some of the communities served lack full-service grocery stores. Gorge Grown parks the truck and sells the locally-grown produce at farmers' markets in communities like Mosier, OR, population 502, and Stevenson, WA, population 1,398. The truck acts as an anchor for fledgling markets by bringing a consistent variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to these small rural communities. This consistent variety builds the markets' customer base, which in turn makes the markets more attractive to local farmers.
This is the Gorge Grown Mobile Farmers' Market, one of a growing group of innovative projects nationwide that use retrofitted buses or trucks to bring healthy food to under-served communities and increase local market opportunities for local farmers. Many mobile markets, including Gorge Grown, are outfitted with Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) machines to process SNAP payments and also accept cash or debit cards.
Gorge Grown secured funding through USDA's Farmers Market Promotion Program, overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Service, to help launch and maintain the mobile market. USDA funding has helped with education and marketing strategies, increased low-income consumers' access to the market, and developed a community of practice to share resources and skills. Gorge Grown recently received an additional $25,000 in USDA support to expand to serve additional communities and participate in a research project to assess the impact of mobile markets as a strategy to increase healthy food access in rural and urban communities.
"There is a real sense of unity between all of these rural markets and by supporting them, the Mobile Market is truly aiding in the development of our region's food system," says Todd Dierker, Programs Manager for Gorge Grown. Due to their success, Gorge Grown has become a model for launching and maintaining new markets in small rural communities and has catalyzed the growth of new food retail infrastructure.
Gorge Grown is now expanding their Mobile Market sales, including those to local restaurants, into the shoulder seasons and offering additional whistlestops,' including schools and potentially senior centers. Gorge Grown plans to purchase produce, grains, and dried fruits from family farmers in the region at wholesale prices and then resell them at cost in several small rural communities. These new whistlestops will also include an educational component, distributing recipe cards that emphasize the local, seasonal produce items available for low-cost and easy-to-make meals.
"The growth in farmers' markets in the Gorge is impressive," says Michelle McGrath, Outreach Manager for Gorge Grown. "This summer, there will be ten farmers' markets serving a region of only 25,000 households. Without a doubt the funding Gorge Grown has received from the USDA's Farmers Market Promotion Program has contributed to this growth. Through innovative marketing and the Mobile Market, we've been able to simultaneously build demand and supply for fresh, local food in rural communities."
Since 2008, funds from USDA's Farmers Market Promotion Program have been used to develop or enhance 17 mobile market projects nationwide. Find other mobile markets that have received USDA support by visiting the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass map and searching for mobile markets.