It IS easy being green: Steve Casey, Fresh Moves' co-founder, in one of his Chicago produce buses
Photography by Daniel Shea

The nonprofit Fresh Moves mobile produce market is a welcome oasis in Chicago’s food-desert communities.

“Welcome, welcome. Come on in!”

Sacha McLeod hands out shopping baskets as senior citizens from the Paul G. Stewart Center on Chicago’s South Side board the Fresh Moves mobile produce market. McLeod, a Fresh Moves team leader, guides the first-time shoppers down the bus’s aisle and along the racks filled with 50 different kinds of produce. Susan Conway, 64, peruses the gleaming apples, unblemished bananas and overflowing cooler of collard greens. She places a mango in her shopping basket and declares, “Fruit is on the menu tonight!”

That’s a rare treat for Conway. Significant sections of the South Side are considered food deserts, areas with little or no convenient access to grocery stores that offer the fresh and low-cost foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. Fast-food outlets and convenience stores are easy to spot in these parts of town, but finding a fresh mango — or high-quality fruits or vegetables of any kind — had been daunting until the nonprofit Fresh Moves set its wheels in motion.

Launched in May 2011, Fresh Moves plays a significant role in a national food-desert “caravan” movement that first got underway a decade ago in California’s Bay Area. In 2003, the nonprofit People’s Grocery transformed a mail truck into a solar- and biodiesel-powered rolling market that brought fresh produce to impoverished West Oakland neighborhoods. But this “greens” movement is just hitting its stride, in large part due to a 2009 Department of Agriculture report that mapped out the nation’s food deserts. About 10 percent of the nation’s 65,000 census tracts are considered food deserts — areas home to 23.5 million Americans. More than half of those people — 13.5 million of them — have low incomes, and all are at greater risk of such serious diet-related diseases as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Since the report was published, first lady Michelle Obama has trained a high beam on the subject through her “Let’s Move!” campaign to end childhood obesity. National retailers such as Walgreens, Walmart and ­Supervalu have pledged to increase their fresh-food offerings and presence in food-desert communities. Local initiatives with such names as MoGro, Freshmobile and Stockbox have sprung up on wheels and in storefronts from New Jersey to New Mexico. Yet the Fresh Moves model stands apart. It has been lauded (in Michelle Obama’s book American Grown), copied (by four other cities) and studied closely, not only for its smart ride (a remodeled retired transit bus) but for its successful rallying of 360-degree support to its cause.

“We wanted to do something good for the community,” says Fresh Moves co-founder­ Steve Casey. “But hunger is a universal problem. We’ve been contacted by people from 50 to 60 communities, from Toronto to São Paulo, Brazil. We never imagined Fresh Moves would resonate as it has.”

When a 2006 report by researcher Mari Gallagher found that nearly 633,000 Chicagoans were living in food deserts, those numbers hit too close to home for the comfort of Casey and fellow community activists Jeff Pinzino and Sheelah Muhammad. “It’s a social-justice issue you just can’t ignore,” says Casey, now president of Fresh Moves’ board of directors. “You have to ask, ‘Why is that? What could be different about that? Could we change that?’ ”

The trio’s first impulse, says Casey, was “to build the biggest, baddest corner store in the city. But none of us around the table could raise the $1 million-plus or had the connections to do it.” The search for an alternative approach led them to study People’s Grocery in West Oakland. Instead of an open-back mail truck, they proposed using a retired city bus to protect against Chicago’s harsh winters. Within five minutes of hearing their plan, the Chicago Transit Authority green-lighted Fresh Moves’ request and, for $1, sold them a retired bus.

Fresh Moves now had wheels — and momentum. On its route toward launch day, the endeavor picked up several other invaluable partners. “We knew from the outset that one organization could not solve such a large and intractable issue on its own,” Casey says. Collaborators duly claimed, and completed, items on the checklist. Market study? High-school students in the nonprofit Umoja Community Builders project surveyed West Side residents for their ideas for increasing food access in the area. Business plan? Students in the Kendall College School of Business developed one. Kendall’s School of Culinary Arts also contributed simple, healthy recipes Fresh Moves could hand out as part of its educational outreach.

The Chicago chapter of Architecture for Humanity produced, for free, five viable designs for transforming the bus into an efficient and inviting space. WM Display Group — a family-owned manufacturer in Chicago — took those plans and ran with them, charging only for its materials to build custom shelves that slid into the same holes and brackets that once held the bus’ seats. Volunteer designers from EPIC (Engaging Philanthropy, Inspiring Creatives) created the bus’s bright-red exterior and eye-­catching, mouth-watering graphics of fruits and vegetables.

“We realized that not all these things could have been purchased,” Casey says. “They came about because of the time we invested, the relationships we created and the knowledge we gained. We never could have launched without them.”

Fresh Moves has posted some impressive numbers since its headline-grabbing launch. By the end of 2012, customers had rung up nearly 16,000 transactions and spent an average of about $5.53 each — often paid with a Link card issued through the Illinois food-assistance program. A $45,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June 2012 enabled Fresh Moves to add a second bus that now serves the South Side. City officials have encouraged organizers to apply for grants to fund three more.

Fresh Moves has made great strides ­toward reducing the food-desert population, and it won’t be re-retiring the bus anytime soon. Of the nearly 384,000 Chicagoans still without access to fresh food, 124,000 are children, such as the students at Spencer Technology Academy.

When Fresh Moves pulls to a stop in front of this elementary school, located in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin, community members and students waste no time scrambling aboard. “Our school has a snack counter that sells candy and cookies, but it reached the point where our students wouldn’t shop there,” says principal Shawn L. Jackson, who got his Ph.D. in Administration and Supervision and who was inspired by Fresh Moves to adopt a healthier lifestyle and has dropped 90 pounds. “They would wait for the bus, and you’d see them eating an apple. The parents got onboard, too, and there’s a lot more home cooking going on now. There has been a paradigm shift.

“The students have really taken ownership,” Jackson says. “This is their bus. This is their Fresh Moves.” 

St. Louis–based freelance writer Kristin Baird Rattini is a frequent contributor to American Way. She’s trying to convince her 6-year-old daughter that there are other fruits in the world besides bananas and apples.