Thursday afternoons at the 51st Street Green Line el Station you’ll find a colorful scene: A large shuttle bus wrapped in a bright photo collage of fruits, veggies, and beaming faces, parks at the curb of Boxville, a shipping container village of 20 hyper-local small businesses. This is the last of three stops that day for the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, a produce store on wheels originally conceived by urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power to alleviate food insecurity on the south and west sides. Growing Power dissolved in 2017, but the bus rolls on under the Urban Growers Collective, former Growing Power Chicago director Erika Allen’s ambitious new food justice organization.
About ten people were standing in line outside the Fresh Moves Mobile Market on the hot hazy afternoon I visited, masked and spaced and patiently waiting their turn to board and shop the one aisle of fruits, vegetables, and smattering of packaged goods—most of which are produced by farms in the city limits. Laurell Sims, cofounder of UGC, said the market purchases a few out-of-season and out-of-climate options—bananas, avocados—from Midwest Foods so shoppers can find most of the fresh ingredients they need. But the bulk of the array, tidily displayed on rows of raked wire shelving, is grown at one of UGC’s eight farms or from participants in their Farmers for Chicago incubation program, which provides training for aspiring BIPOC growers.
Sims said that by growing the food themselves, UGC is able to keep costs to customers low. The Fresh Moves Mobile Market also accepts Link Match double-value coupons and has been offering $10 vouchers throughout the pandemic, an option Sims hopes to extend through the end of the year.
Fresh Moves Mobile Market
Keeping prices low is, of course, a central concern. Food insecurity across Chicago’s south and west sides—whether you call the multitude of grocery-less neighborhoods deserts or, more aptly, the product of apartheid—only worsened during the pandemic. UGC shifted their focus to emergency relief, using the Fresh Moves bus as one of several methods to transport over a million pounds of food to people in need. UGC uses the bus to distribute USDA food boxes, anywhere from 200 to 500 boxes per day. “Folks appreciated the bus was consistent,” Sims said. “A lot of businesses had to shut down in COVID. We figured out how to fundraise and expand by ten sites during the pandemic.”
Fresh Moves stops at three locations per day Mondays through Fridays, spending about two hours at each site—places like Claretian Associates in South Chicago, Trina Davila in Humboldt Park, and multiple Howard Brown Health clinics. And demand is high: Sims said the Fresh Moves customer base has tripled in the last four years. An auxiliary van—a mobile stock room of sorts—follows the bus to each site, filled with crates of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, onions for staff members to replenish the shelves. From what I observed at the Boxville stop, it’s a continuous process.
Sims said UGC would like to deploy a second bus dedicated solely to the west side once the organization completes their Green Era Campus—a nine-acre development encompassing a farm, teaching kitchen, farm stand, and compost-producing anaerobic digester—which is slated to open in Auburn Gresham in the spring. For now, the organization is struggling to grow enough produce to meet the current demand.
Most of the Fresh Moves stops are health centers and churches, charitable organizations connected to and serving populations in need. But I was particularly interested in visiting the Boxville stop because of the mini-city-center vibrancy it’s established at 51st and Calumet Avenue. Fresh Moves shoppers can browse the brightly painted micro-storefronts of a custom apparel shop, a wellness boutique, or what Sandria Washington, Boxville’s director of engagement, told me is, somewhat incredibly, the first running store on the south side. Folks can pick up a snack at Conscious Plates, the vegan/alkaline restaurant or (if they’re like me) The Hot Dog Box. UGC even has a shop in half of one box to vend dried medicinal herbs and teas grown and packaged by the kids in their job training program. As I waited in line, I saw an older woman get a bit of free bike maintenance advice from a young employee of the Bike Box, the Boxville business that started it all. Visitors can wander across the street to the Bronzeville community garden and admire the mural on the wall backing beds of chard, echinacea, and collard greens. It’s a welcoming place where two ingenious solutions to deeply entrenched inequities—one on wheels, one adapted from transportation—meet to create an atmosphere of optimism and promise.