If Grocery Stores Aren’t Coming to Food Deserts, Why Not Sell Produce at the Train Station Instead?

Atlanta’s public transportation system is bringing low-cost retail to stops in underserved neighborhoods.

(Photo: Pamela Greer/Getty Images)

Jan 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Attempts to quench food deserts with fresh fruits and vegetables usually involve bringing out the big wheels. Farmers markets go mobile with refurbished buses, trolleys, trailers, and even bicycles. But Atlanta’s public transportation system, MARTA, has inverted this approach—the produce is coming to a transit station.

After a rider survey found that commuters were interested in better access to “fresh and locally grown organic produce,” Denise Whitfield, MARTA manager of retail development, started a campaign to bring fruit and vegetable vendors to Atlanta’s West End station by early spring. Thirty percent of Fulton County, home to the West End neighborhood, has been classified as a food desert by the USDA.

“We know that our particular riders and residents who live in that area typically don’t have access to cars, and we thought: How can we best get fresh product to the folks that we serve?” Whitfield said.

In the pilot program, vendors will sell local produce in an area of the station where a ticket isn’t required, meaning non-riders could shop there, too. Whitfield is optimistic that a program like this could not only serve the current riders but increase business for MARTA overall (the program itself will be revenue neutral).

“We think this might be a motivator for those people who might not normally ride the MARTA system to actually take the train from wherever they are to the West End station in order to access the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Whitfield told a local news station. MARTA is considering offering produce in other stations as well.

Decommissioned transit hubs have long found a second life as foodie palaces. At Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market or San Francisco’s Ferry Building, visitors can buy Alice Waters’ newest cookbook, purchase responsibly raised ingredients for their locally sourced dinner, and sidle up to a counter for oysters on the half shell and a glass of cava. However, what MARTA is cooking up is a relatively fresh idea.

“As far we know, it’s not something any other transit system is doing, except maybe New York with Grand Central Terminal Market,” Whitfield said. But with specialty foods purveyors Murray’s Cheese and Zabar’s as vendors, Grand Central Terminal isn’t looking to provide affordable access to, well, much of anything. (Access to small-batch chocolates and charcuterie? Look no further.) But price is a priority for Whitfield. “We will be focused on ensuring that the vendors and farmers that we partner with are able to offer fresh produce at a rate that is affordable for the folks that we serve,” she said.

New York might offer a different model for success. Back in 2008, the New York City Green Carts program began wheeling fresh produce into underserved areas. In July, a study by the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs found that the carts had successfully integrated into neighborhoods with low grocery store density. Seventy-one percent of customers surveyed reported increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables since they began shopping at a Green Cart (63 percent had become regulars). But the detail perhaps most relevant to MARTA’s pilot program was about location: Vendors who did the briskest business were those located in high foot-traffic areas—near subways and bus stops.

“It’s not just a question of low-income [and] low-access, but it’s also a question of timing,” said Kel Smith, whose company Anikto developed the mobile app Aisle Won, which connects people in low-income and low-access communities with local sources of healthy, affordable food. “Being able to put fresh fruits and vegetables in the path tends to remove a lot of the obstructions. It puts it in the course of someone’s day, as opposed to forcing them to make a special trip for it.”

Smith has also seen miniature farmers markets pop up at SEPTA stations in Philadelphia. But successful food desert interventions understand the communities they serve on a deep level—one that makes it possible to create meaningful connections between food, habit, and culture that can ultimately lead to behavioral change.

“The way people use and acquire food has a lot to do with where they live and where they’re from,” Smith said. “The way someone thinks about buying groceries in, say, Boston, is going to be very different than Atlanta or Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas. People have different local attitudes toward the food they eat and what they do with it.” The most successful programs—whether new grocery stores or mobile farmers markets—address this by involving local community leaders and soliciting feedback from the people who live in the area to find out exactly what kinds of products customers would like to see. That’s the case with NYC’s Green Carts, which has catered its offerings to the tastes of each neighborhood, selling produce that might be seen as a specialty ingredient in an area with a different ethnic makeup.

“I can drop a sack of zucchini at a person’s house every morning for the next ten years,” Smith said. “But if they don’t know how to prepare zucchini, or what to do with it, or don’t have any interest in zucchini, it’s just going to go to waste. There’s an education element as well.”

Having a table with vegetables on it at the end of your commute might be great on paper, but Smith believes experiential learning, through cooking demos and recipe suggestions, could make the program that much more effective in improving the health of a community. It’s also critical to have an understanding of the underpinning issues of what food really means to people.

“That’s the deeper challenge than having access,” he said. “How we acquire food is part of our behavior. It’s kind of the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It makes perfect sense that these activities would be intrinsic to what we’re like, and who we’re with, and who we think we are, and I think that’s something we need to be thinking about in terms of food deserts.”