Sheelah Muhammad* is the co-founder of Fresh Moves—a project working for food justice in Chicago’s poorest areas. The organization employs five people from the communities in which they operate—prioritizing difficult-to-employ individuals who struggle to find work elsewhere—to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to communities that lack greengrocers or other sources of healthy food options.
“It is not just about food, it is about empowerment,” said the co-founder about Fresh Moves. Muhammad co-launched the initiative with activists Jeff Pinzino and Steven Casey as a direct response to the 2006 Mari Gallagher Report, which examined the health impact of food deserts in the city of Chicago. According to the document, food deserts are “neighborhoods with no or distant grocery stores but an abundance of fast food restaurants and other retail outlets offering little or no nutritious food.”
The researchers investigated the distances that residents from 77 Chicagoan communities had to travel in order to reach the nearest greengrocer. The subsequent mapping revealed large food desert areas in Chicago’s West and South sides—primarily African-American neighborhoods. Moreover, when food deserts were juxtaposed with available public health data, the report concluded that “communities that have no or distant grocery stores, or have an imbalance of healthy food options, will likely have increased premature death and chronic health conditions.”Muhammad joined other campaigners and advisors in a careful planning of their response to the problem. In the end, the team secured an old public bus as a donation from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and transformed it into a mobile produce market that delivers ingredients for healthy meals to some of Chicago’s most barren food deserts.
“The response has been phenomenal—overwhelmingly positive—that is our biggest success,” said Muhammad. “The CTA was sold on the project in the first five minutes of our meeting—the CTA Chairman was actually from an area that lacked food access. And this is why we have not had any problems—people can literally see the issues of food insecurity and food injustice around them,” she said.
Today, under the slogan “No more food deserts. The drought is over!” Fresh Moves operates a weekly route stopping in 12 different locations in Chicago’s West side. The bus has been converted with multiple vertical rows of fruit, vegetable, and greens-filled greengrocer baskets on the inside (over 40 different products in total) and painted in crimson-red with ripe bananas, carrots, and watermelons on the outside. The produce offered is as seasonal and local as possible—the project sources goods from Chicago’s urban agriculture initiatives, such as Windy City Harvest and Growing Power, and supports African-American farmers outside the city. It also offers its customers 50 percent extra free when they choose local.Fresh Moves also partners with Goodness Greenest, Midwest’s largest organic food distributor, who allows them to purchase smaller quantities at special prices.
When it came to their organic line, the organization started small and typically carries only a few different organic products at any one time. “One of our key messages is to eat more fruits and vegetables, but we also talk about food as medicine—it can make you healthy or it can make you sick—that is how we educate customers about organic,” said Muhammad.
“Take organic strawberries,” she continued, “from the start we put them next to our regular strawberries and our sales associates spent time explaining the differences between them to our customers, such as the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer and the possible health effects of both.” The team sold out of the organic line before the conventional stock even though organic was double the price.
This kind of public education and community engagement is what makes Fresh Moves so successful. The three most popular stops are the organization’s elementary school partners, where kids get to shop for themselves and where teachers and principals reward good behavior with Fresh Moves coupons instead of chocolate bars. “Kids literally run to our bus!” said Muhammad, “one little boy bought broccoli with his ticket—we were amazed.”
To further their youth and community engagement, Fresh Moves organized an inter-generational advisory board made up of students, teachers, parents, and other community members ranging from 7 to 60 years of age. The board gets together to discuss how the team can improve its product offering and customer service. Twelve-year-old Fresh Moves Youth Ambassador Antonique Fernandez from Spencer Elementary School put together the Fresh Moves Youth Pledge that all young customers are encouraged to make:
Today I pledge from this day on, to eat healthier.
To substitute one junk food for either a vegetable or a fruit.
To be more active and exercise with my spare time.
To choose my food, and don’t let my food choose me.
Today I can, Today I will, Today I pledge.
“In the long term we want to shift the paradigm—not everything has to be about big box supermarket solutions,” said Muhammad, “let’s reimagine what alternatives can look like.”
With another city bus donation and a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fresh Moves is planning for expansion and aims to, one day, provide fresh, seasonal produce for the residents of Chicago’s South side as well. In the short term, Muhammad is content to be part of a team that is making a real difference right now: “I will be happy as long as we continue to provide great customer service, continue to be accountable to our communities, and continue to work towards equity in the food system by allowing all people to have access to good food.”
Do you know of a project that is helping communities green their food deserts? Leave a reply below.
Ioulia Fenton is a researcher with INESAD.
Like this article? Be sure to sign up your email at the top of this page to receive weekly notifications directly to your inbox.
*As of October 2012, a change of leadership has meant that Sheelah Muhammad no longer represents Fresh Moves.