In July 2016, I spent a sweaty noon-hour outside Toronto General Hospital convincing passers-by to purchase guavas and other produce from a repurposed wheel-trans bus. Why? Earlier this summer, I got excited about a new collaboration between three institutional giants in Toronto: The University Health Network (UHN), Toronto Public Health (TPH), and FoodShare. These organizations represent dietetic care across the health continuum, from health promotion to tertiary care. This partnership therefore brings to life a form of clinical public health. I decided to get involved.
This partnership brought the existing Mobile Good Food Market (developed by FoodShare and the Toronto Food Strategy Team at TPH) to the hospital. FoodShare’s Market is an impressive operation that began in June 2012; it brings discounted produce to Toronto neighbourhoods of low-income and low supermarket-density. Picture a regular wheel-trans bus, retrofitted inside and out, to serve fruit and vegetables wherever people need them most. The Good Food Market sells a limited number of to-go salads and snacks, but the main products for sale are fruits and vegetables.
(Photo credit: http://www.cpha.ca/en/programs/social-determinants/frontlinehealth/stories/food_markets.aspx
Why is this project important?
You might think this is an easy question to answer: The Mobile Good Food Market closes a gap in the food environment that causes a lack of fresh, healthy foods in some areas. But that is not necessarily the case. Research increasingly suggests that “food deserts” are not as problematic as “food swamps,” in which unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods, despite a vast array of options overall.
That is, the ratio of healthy-to-unhealthy foods seems to be more important than the absolute number of food options in the vicinity. This is a more difficult problem for public health nutrition to address. How can we tip that ratio in favour of healthy options without attempting to control the food environment?
This mobile market is one way of making healthy foods visible, inexpensive, and convenient to consumers making food choices in the incredibly diverse and enticing food environment that is downtown Toronto – where fresh produce is available but doesn’t stand out. Partnering across the health continuum is crucial in addressing these complex problems, and bringing the Mobile Good Food Market to such a huge organization (UHN’s population is around 30,000 people) is one way of addressing this gap.
What people said about the Market
By far the majority of people walking past appreciated the Mobile Good Food Market, saying “this is great” and “this is what we need.” Some noted that the prices were low and made spontaneous purchases because of this. Others, though they didn’t buy anything, stopped to say they hoped to see the Good Food Market downtown in the long-term, and pointed out an important problem: Everyone was walking, and almost nobody had a vehicle to carry groceries home.
Establishing a business model
Once I noticed this barrier to carrying groceries, I started thinking about the Good Food Market in terms of a business: If this were a commercial operation, how could we maximize sales? The Mobile Good Food Market was aiming to compete with other food trucks and less healthy establishments. Some serious competition.
Who is the Good Food Market targeting, and how? If the mobile market is intended to serve as a food-truck alternative, at which you can get lunch or a snack, then it would need to sell more to-go options (this would become increasingly complicated considering food safety and storage concerns, and would increase costs).
The Market operates on Fridays over the lunch break of most downtown workers, yet its content indicates that it’s more like a grocery store. If it is meant as a grocery store, then maybe the hours of operation should target staff and caregivers leaving the hospital and other workplaces at around 5pm instead of lunchtime. One way of thinking through all of this (and I’m sure many other business questions that didn’t occur to me) could be to extend the collaboration further and invite food industry into the partnership; this would likely lengthen decision-making time, but their expertise might improve sales and success of the Market as a public health business. I also wondered about what the role of the dietitian might be in this type of endeavour, and how we could evaluate the project’s success in terms of nutrition-related outcomes.
Positives and future potential
The partnership behind the Mobile Good Food Market had clearly considered some of these business questions, and had already worked out some solutions. For example, the Market’s staff offered cloth bags that are both useful to customers for carrying home the groceries, and great marketing tools (each bag displayed the “Grab some Good” branding and the logos of all partners). However, there is great potential for this initiative to be even more impactful and opportunities to assess the impact it is having.
Overall, I thought the Mobile Good Food Market demonstrated a successful partnership and provided great visibility for all involved. This initiative represents an effort to change the food environment with a simple idea. It conveniently works as a conversation-starter about nutrition in health care institutions and as a preventative measure at the population level. I hope this sparks similar projects and partnerships across Canada and that the nutrition community can continue to discuss existing projects and how to further build on and promote our services for the public’s benefit.
Editor’s note: Piggy backing on something trendy, like food trucks, to increase the effectiveness of a public health initiative is an excellent strategy! I’m glad to hear about something like this in Toronto. Have you visited the Mobile Good Food Market? If so, what where your thoughts? Or, have you taken advantage of a trend to promote health? Tell us about it in the comments section below!