A Taste of Somerville 

10-10-17

Ever since my friend started driving “Fresh Truck” — a trendy, retrofitted school bus that brings fresh produce to underserved areas throughout Boston — I’ve been curious about what may seem like a really simple solution to food insecurity: if people can’t bring themselves to healthy food, bring the healthy food to them.  Today, I attended the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market to see a similar enterprise in action.

My first stop was the Council on Aging, a community center that provides older adults with fitness activities, educational programs, and other support services.  While it took me a while to locate the mobile market at this site — the truck was stationed in a regular parking space close to the building’s entrance, and all signs advertising the market were clustered locally, rather than on the main street — it became clear that its customers knew exactly where to go.  As the clock struck noon, a throng of adults poured out of the building’s main entrance and transitioned, in unison, to the stands of produce nearby.  I watched the (mainly middle-aged) adults approach the goods intentionally and enthusiastically, chatting with fellow shoppers in what sounded like a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.  They loaded baskets with produce, asked the staff some clarifying questions, and ended their mission by handing EBT cards to the cashier on site.  After the initial swarm of shoppers subsided, I had a nice chat with two of the employees (Madeline and Isabella, both Tufts students) about the larger scope of this market — turns out it’s an offshoot of Shape Up Somerville and is now in its seventh year of service.

Immediately, Madeline and Isabella confirmed what I had already noticed on signs nearby: the market offers a 50% discount for residents of North Street or Mystic Housing, as well as for those with SNAP, WIC, or Senior Farmers’ Market Coupons.  According to the employees, 75% of customers use food stamps — an encouraging sign given the correlation between poverty and food insecurity.  Namely, the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market eliminates some of the time and cost constraints for those who would otherwise have to leave their neighborhoods to find healthy food.  Rather than going to “small corner stores whose shelves are predominantly stocked with high-fat and sugary processed foods,” customers can now buy produce close to their homes (Soursourian, 2011).  And for those who don’t live or work in the market’s direct line of travel, its presence is advertised through WIC and SNAP pamphlets, flyers in Cambridge Health Alliance, Facebook posts, and “word of mouth,” according to Madeline and Isabella.  In other words, you don’t have to attend the Council on Aging to know the market exists.

When I asked about barriers to food security in Somerville, the employees attributed the success of Somerville Mobile Farmers Market not just to its mobility and lower cost, but also to its cultural sensitivity.  Considering the market’s high percentage of immigrant customers, its diverse mix of produce caters to those who may avoid the traditional selection at grocery stores.   In fact, when I scanned the fruits and vegetables being sold, Jilo (a Brazilian eggplant) and Callaloo (a Caribbean leaf vegetable) were among the more traditional items: scallions, carrots, bell peppers, onions, beets, cranberry beans, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, apples, potatoes, broccoli, yams, and radishes.  Meanwhile, the market takes suggestions from customers regarding desired products, and its employees speak multiple languages.  Not surprisingly, each produce label was translated into Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese.

In addition to making healthy food more accessible through multilingual labels and a diverse array of produce, the market — stationed strategically in front of community centers, schools, and housing developments — becomes a social space as well.  While immigrant populations are more likely to like in neighborhoods with higher violence, concentrated poverty, and a lack of access to recreational and health-promoting facilities, “ethnic enclaves may be protective of health because they contain sets of relationships, institutions, and social resources that facilitate the day-to-day survival and functioning of immigrants and buffer the negative effects of social disadvantages” (Viruell-Fuentes, Miranda, and Abdulrahim, 2012).  Arguably, the Somerville Mobile Market leverages these strong social ties by stationing itself outside of community organizations.  And when shoppers anticipate bumping into people they know, they’re more likely to come back.

But the strong sense of community among many immigrant populations does not eliminate their common fear of using public assistance programs.  When I arrived at the market’s next stop at East Somerville Community School, I met a community outreach coordinator — Marc Aubourg, who works at Cambridge Health Alliance — who explained the common misperceptions of WIC and SNAP eligibility among immigrants (both documented and undocumented).  According to the Wellbeing of Somerville Report, “61% of those who are income eligible for SNAP in Somerville are not accessing these available financial benefits” — a phenomenon that Marc attributed to a fear of being deported among noncitizen immigrants.  Moreover, undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for SNAP may not know that they are eligible for WIC — one reason that Marc was handing out informational flyers to all customers at the market, along with free reusable tote bags that said “WIC” on the side.  “There are 571 people we need to reach in Somerville,” Marc told me.  “But how do you reach those in hiding?”

As I left the market and biked up Somerville’s hilly back roads, I realized that the strength of Somerville’s mobile market wasn’t its trendiness or flashiness, as one would expect of a painted school bus, for instance.  Rather, its practicality, understated presence, and ability to bring people together is what makes it an effective (albeit, not perfect) initiative to curb food insecurity in Somerville, where residents seem ready for change.