In December 2009, a first-year Vanderbilt medical student putting in time at a free clinic in East Nashville met four very sick patients. Each ate poorly and had hit a predictable trifecta: diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
He could’ve recited the importance of healthy food and returned to his hectic 22-year-old life: 60-plus hours at the clinic and school. But Ravi Patel already had a pattern of enterprising where others empathize. By his sophomore year in college, he’d helped create a microfinance project in Uganda, allowing 15 women with HIV to sell their crafts around the globe. (That was inspired by a freshman year spring break spent volunteering at a clinic in Guatemala.)
With those four patients, Patel picked up on a similar frustration: They wanted to eat better, but getting their hands on healthy food was hard where they lived. In early February, he launched his attempt at a solution, Nashville Mobile Market.
Patel, now 23, stocks a 28-foot trailer full of produce, milk, brown rice and other groceries, rolls into neighborhoods where access to healthy food is limited at best, and sells for a few hours. He tries to hit six or seven spots from Friday to Sunday.
Since the mobile market began, it’s primarily served the Edgehill community. This week, Patel adds two East Nashville stops, the Martha O’Bryan Center and Edgefield Manor. By the end of the month, he hopes to park the market somewhere in North Nashville one day a week.
All three of Patel’s targeted neighborhoods are considered food deserts, meaning they have no full-service grocery store and are saturated with junk food sold at corner stores and fast-food chains. Typically, these are low-income areas where residents have to put aside bus fare and a few hours for a trip to the supermarket. All that contributes to an abysmal obesity problem. According to the Trust for America’s Health, in 2010 Tennessee had the second-highest rate of obese adults in the nation at 31.6 percent. Davidson County sat at 30 percent. The state’s childhood obesity rates ranked as the sixth-highest at 20.6 percent.
“The four biggest obstacles to getting groceries are child care, transportation, distance and time. The easiest way to combat that?” said Patel, remembering his moment of clarity. “Hey, let’s make it mobile.”
A $65,000 Frist Foundation grant covered startup costs. But Patel runs his nonprofit like a business. He buys food at wholesale cost from Mid South Distributors and Associated Wholesale Grocers. Patel prices it in line with what Kroger might charge. He wants the mobile market to be sustainable.
“At the end of the day we’re selling it so that people can have access to it,” Patel said.
So far, his best weekends have yielded around $800 in sales. About $200 of that is profit. Half goes back into the market. Twenty-five percent goes to the Shade Tree Clinic, the free East Nashville facility where the idea was born. The remaining 25 percent will go to social enterprise grants in low-income neighborhoods.
One of Patel’s strongest supporters is the community group ONE (Organized Neighbors of Edgehill). Daynise Couch, ONE’s executive director, applauds Patel for listening to his customers.
“Residents gave input as to what was stocked on the truck,” Couch said. “They stressed the importance of the mobile market accepting EBT.” If Patel didn’t take food stamps he’d lose a third of the 150-200 shoppers showing up on weekends.
Nashville Mobile Market is part of a mosaic of anti-obesity, healthy living efforts with ties to Vanderbilt. The Veggie Project, started by a Vanderbilt graduate student, teaches kids how to harvest produce and sell it at farmers’ markets. Joan Randall, the administrative director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Obesity and Metabolism, chairs the Tennessee Obesity Task Force. It formed in 2008, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention picked Tennessee as one of 25 states in which to fund anti-obesity efforts. Tennessee receives $450,000 a year.
Randall said the mobile market is fulfilling a great need, albeit on a small scale.
“It’s a smart model. I totally support it,” she said. But her task force is charged with curbing obesity by 2015. Achieving that ambitious goal will take more than portable markets and community gardens.
“That can solve a problem in a specific area,” she said, citing the need for “greater impact.” Especially considering that in Tennessee, obesity rates are higher in poverty-stricken, rural areas than in urban areas.
So the task force focuses on policy. For the second year in a row they’re pushing for state legislation. The “Tennessee Food Desert Relief Act” would allow the state’s Local Development Authority to issue revenue bonds for grocers willing to move into food deserts but having difficulty securing financing. Right now the bill is lodged in the finance subcommittee.
Patel is all for eradicating food deserts, which would ultimately put him out of business.
“I’m all for shutting down,” he laughed. “As a nonprofit, you exist not to exist. There’s a failure in the market, you provide services, then you go onto the next problem.”
Patel doubts, however, that grocery stores will start springing up in food deserts anytime soon. Even with tax incentives, grocery chains are wary of inner-city areas. The customer base is small when compared with a well-traveled location like West End Avenue. Also, theft is perceived as a problem.
Right now, Patel’s biggest challenge with the mobile market is getting the word out. But in the last four weeks, even before his expansion into new neighborhoods, sales have increased 33 percent thanks to customers purchasing at a higher volume.
“Before, they were coming in buying a days’ worth of food,” Patel said. “Now they’re buying four or five day’s worth.” He’s taking that as a sign that the mobile market is moving from novelty to staple.