A Bus and Sliding Prices Help Bring the Same Great Food to Everyone

Charging well-off patrons more allows St. Louis’ MetroMarket to sell groceries to the most food insecure at cost.
MetroMarket bus in St. Louis. (Photo: Marcus Stabenow)
Apr 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When a kid visits Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis for the annual well-child checkup, doctors will ask questions that ascertain the child’s level of hunger at home. If food security is found to be an issue, there will be a solution in the form of a bus standing by in the parking lot come mid-May. The doctor will write the patient a prescription for fruits and vegetables that will serve as a coupon aboard the St. Louis MetroMarket, a mini full-service grocery store on wheels.

“We’re treating food like medicine because it very much is,” said Jeremy Goss, a Saint Louis University medical student and one of the founders of MetroMarket, along with Washington University graduates Colin Dowling and Tej Azad.

But by offering the same grocery store on wheels to corporate customers as to the food insecure, MetroMarket can provide quality food to anyone who wants it—and at a deep discount to those who need it most.

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“The challenge for us as a company—a company that needs to remain sustainable and viable for as long as possible—is to make good commonsense business decisions,” Goss said.

MetroMarket got off the ground with grants and donations, but its corporate customers are what will keep it going. The city’s Metro Transit department donated the first bus, dubbed Turnip 1, and businesses have contributed to its retrofitting by donating refrigeration and freezer units that have amounted to about $60,000 in updates.

Saint Louis University Hospital and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital were the first to sign up for an annual membership that will have MetroMarket visit their campuses once a week for 25 weeks of the year. On those days, doctors won’t just be writing prescriptions for the bus—they can shop on it too. Hospital employees will receive a Fresh Pass membership and have easy access on their lunch break to the same mini grocery store that’s serving high-need communities. The only thing that’s different is the price.

Cofounder Jeremy Goss inside the MetroMarket bus. (Photo: Marcus Stabenow)

“We’ll take the revenue that we make from the corporate campuses, and we’ll use that to offset the work that we’re doing in low-income communities,” Goss said.

Community members enrolled in the federal food stamp program who live in the JeffVanderLou, Hyde Park, and Carr Square neighborhoods—which are all designated as food deserts—will be preregistered for free Fresh Pass memberships, allowing them to purchase their groceries at cost, a discount Goss said can be up to 40 percent off retail prices. Community members in the “doughnut hole”—who live in the food desert but above the poverty line—will have to purchase their own memberships but will then see discounts. Anyone can walk up without a membership and pay cash for groceries at the unsubsidized price. Outside the market, there will be cooking demos and taste tests to give customers an idea of what to do with, say, that kohlrabi when they get home.

There’s often the perception that the highly food insecure should settle for eating lower-quality food than those with means—think of the cupboard fruit-cocktail castoff donated to the local food pantry. But no one’s confusing government cheese with aged Irish cheddar. By operating on a sliding pay scale in areas of varying need, MetroMarket is making a quiet but powerful statement with its model: Everyone deserves to eat great food.