Next stop: Fresh produce

Steve Casey heads Food Desert Action, which will use an old CTA bus to deliver healthy fare to food deserts in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)

In Steven Casey's Englewood neighborhood, milk and eggs, bread and bologna are easy to find.

"In the 'hood, you can get meat all day long," he said. "It may not be good meat, but it's there."

What's more difficult to find, Casey said, are what his family and neighbors need so desperately: fresh bananas, apples, spinach, broccoli, kale and other fruits and vegetables that could improve their health.

Shortly after a 2006 study labeled his community a food desert, Casey and a group of self-proclaimed food activists started working to correct that inequity.

Next month, their new grass-roots organization, Food Desert Action, will unveil a solution to the healthy food crisis — a renovated CTA bus transformed into a mobile produce stand.

The concept is simple, Casey said. If residents in poor neighborhoods can't make it to stores that carry healthy food, the Fresh Moves bus will bring produce to them.

"Eventually, we want to be just like the ice cream truck," Casey said. "Everyone remembers the music, they hear it and they know ice cream is there. When they see our bus, we want them to know fresh fruits and vegetables are here."

The idea of mobile produce stands to serve food deserts isn't new. There are mobile produce markets in Buffalo, N.Y.; Salt Lake City; and New Orleans, and legislation was recently approved in Trenton, N.J., to help further efforts there.

But Fresh Moves' commercial food bus is the first of its kind in Chicago, city officials said.

The idea was developed by four local residents who decided they couldn't wait for large retailers to serve troubled neighborhoods.

Rather than rely on residents to get to a market, Fresh Moves will deliver affordable, healthy food to their struggling communities block by block. And instead of focusing on profit, Fresh Moves' mission is to address the social issues that arise in communities where the food selection is abysmal.

"This is about reaching a vulnerable population," Casey said. "We are, hopefully, attacking the issue of food access and unemployment radically different."

A July 2006 study found that residents on Chicago's South and West sides had to travel twice as far to access grocery stores. Those communities are littered with fast-food restaurants with fatty, processed foods. According to the study, commissioned by LaSalle Bank, residents who live in food deserts are more likely to die prematurely and at greater rates from cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

When community and education activist Jeff Pinzino read about the report, its findings struck a nerve, he said. For years, he has pushed for improvements in education and for greater resources for troubled communities.

"If kids don't have healthy food, they can't concentrate in school," Pinzino said. "There are all kinds of studies that show the benefits of a healthy breakfast."

The food desert issue seemed like it could be solved, Pinzino said. He reached out to Casey and another healthy-food activist, Sheelah Muhammad, so they could brainstorm solutions.

Initially the group was going to open a corner-store-style vegetable stand. But that idea required too much upfront capital and access to a building and land, and the store wouldn't serve enough residents, Pinzino said.

Then they were struck by the idea of putting the grocery on wheels.

The bus will start its first route in the Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods — among the most food-deprived communities, according to the 2006 study.