Most people think ‘food bank’ when they think of Foodlink. While food pantries are an integral part of their mission, they have also initiated innovative food access programs like the Curbside Market.
Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer at Foodlink, founded the Curbside Market program in 2013. He and his team had been working on developing food access programs at the time in order to establish farmers’ markets in communities where fresh produce was sparing.
“What we realized was that the biggest barriers for a lot of folks to get to the store were transportation and mobility issues,” says Gruber. “One of the obvious interventions for us to develop was an ability to run mobile markets to bring the food and market directly to people, specifically where they live. We focused in on affordable housing communities, federally qualified health centers and neighborhood and community centers.”
Thus the birth of the Curbside Market. In five years’ time, they have jumped from 43 total sites in 2013 to 153 in 2017 and sold over 906,000 pounds of food, growing from one truck to a fleet of three. In year one, Curbside operated five days a week and was intended to run from July through October because that is Rochester’s primary growing season. It became clear, however, that the demand was much more than they expected.
“The first year we ended up going longer, running through the deep part of the winter,” says Gruber. “Starting the next year we went year-round and the year after that we started adding counties outside of Monroe. We’re now in six counties.”
Curbside also does weekend visits based on special requests. For instance, the program has teamed up with a couple of local churches, so Curbside stops at those sites on Sundays to reach even more families in need of healthy, affordable food.
Functioning on a seasonal schedule, Curbside is serving 82 sites this fall, and the total number of sites for 2018 is expected to exceed 153. Customers are welcome to pay in various means including cash, credit, debit, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC FMNP (Women, Infants and Children Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program). Furthermore, Curbside offers a double-up matching program in which SNAP benefits are matched up to $10, “which has really benefited a lot of folks who have limited income,” says Florence Clemmons, manager of the Curbside Market program.
Customers can find one of Curbside Market’s three vehicles at various locations around Monroe County and six of the 10 surrounding counties including Dunn Towers, Plymouth Gardens, Jewish Senior Life and Charles Settlement House, to name a few. The trucks set up shop for periods ranging from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the location.
Maintaining its fleet has been one of the biggest challenges Curbside Market has seen.
“We now have three vehicles that are much more customized to the nature of the program, and that means it’s a whole lot more money on our fleet and it’s a whole lot more planning of infrastructure to plan three different routes and staffing,” explains Gruber. “We’re confident that we’re going to keep finding success, but the logistics are really complicated.”
Clemmons agrees that the trucks see a lot of wear and tear, so it can be a challenge to keep all three on the road at all times. When you step on the truck, though, it is like walking into a public market; fruits, veggies and potatoes line the walls of the mobile market.
“Our trucks were retrofitted to look like a farm stand with a grocery store feel,” notes Clemmons. “We want people to feel like they’re in a grocery store when they walk in.”
For those with mobility issues, the two newer trucks were carefully designed so that the sides roll up so customers can see what Curbside has to offer. The Curbside team has also created price sheets for people to reference and then volunteers will help fill customers’ orders.
Curbside is also working on rolling out seasonal bundles for customers who are on the go or looking for a quicker way to shop. The seasonal bundles will likely be made up of five items for a fixed price as well as a recipe.
The program is meant to serve all populations in need of fresh produce, and officials hope to expand their reach to more working families who they may miss due to individuals’ work or program schedules.
“We serve a lot more senior citizens than working families, so we have to sit down and work out the right schedule to meeting working families’ needs and work with the right organizations to help us reach those families,” says Clemmons.
Curbside is in the midst of negotiations with state and federal governments to become fully WIC certified. That would make them the first mobile market to accept every WIC benefit, such as formula for infants, protein like beans and legumes and whole grains.
“I’m very optimistic about how this is going to play out,” says Gruber. “It might take a while as these things tend to do, but it would be a huge growth opportunity for Curbside to diversify our products and reach new customer bases.”
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