Produce truck brings nutritional hope to Detroit neighborhood

Articles
August 19, 2009

Produce truck brings nutritional hope to Detroit neighborhood

To Lisa Johanon, who has lived by choice for 22 years in the inner-city Detroit neighborhood which she serves, living in a food desert is no fun, and it compromises nutritional choices.

To Lisa Johanon, who has lived by choice for 22 years in the inner-city Detroit neighborhood which she serves, living in a food desert is no fun, and it compromises nutritional choices. “Their problems are my problems,” she told SupermarketGuru.com. 

So she made a difference. About a year ago, the Peaches & Greens produce truck took to the streets, filled to the brim with 75 different fruits and vegetables at value prices (some grown and harvested by volunteers at its two half-acre community gardens), as well as refrigerated milk, butter and eggs.  

It’s been an unqualified hit. Routes that were initially four days a week between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. have expanded to six days a week between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. (snowy months excluded). Money is tight here, however: the daily take ranges from $250 to $300 per day, when breakeven is $375, explains Ms. Johanon. The truck accepts cash, food stamps, debit and credit cards, with no minimum purchase required.

The truck’s route traverses a three-mile perimeter, where 20,000 people live and are otherwise served by just one independent grocer and a small produce storefront run by the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., which Ms. Johanon heads as its executive director. The truck itself operates as an LLC to remove liability from the parent corporation.

“Area residents who want to buy perishables like milk have to go to liquor stores (26 in the neighborhood) or gas stations, and know there’s a high chance it will spoil in a day,” she explains. “They’re used to being treated poorly. We emphasize good customer service. It baffles them sometimes.”

Though the truck doesn’t go out in mid-winter (“Customers might fall on unshoveled sidewalks”), the nonprofit does deliver to the homes of senior citizens, and plans a regular weekly presence at senior centers.

Pricing is sharp. The produce store aims to undercut supermarkets by a few pennies per pound; the truck is a nickel higher than the produce store because of expenses.

What has she learned from the initiative?
•    There is demand for produce, even in neighborhoods people don’t think there would be.
•    70% of the truck’s customers are men (she says Michigan State University will be researching this further).
•    Top sellers are seedless green grapes, strawberries, cherries, bananas and blueberries. The worst: seedless cucumbers and mushrooms.

“By making good food accessible, we change people’s thoughts about what to eat. We sell three apples for $1, when just one is enough to fill you up,” says Ms. Johanon.  “Senior citizens love the nostalgia of the produce truck. It excites them.  The PR we’ve gotten from this effort is incredible compared with the houses we’ve built and youth programs we’ve run.”

What could others learn?
Plenty and soon. On August 25, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm will launch a program of zero-interest loans to entrepreneurs that want to bring fresh produce daily to other underserved areas of the city. Peaches & Greens is consulting on this program.

By the way, the truck is a converted ten-year-old UPS vehicle made by a hometown brand:  GMC. Toot your horn for Peaches & Greens.