Every Friday, Sylvia takes the elevator down from her residence in Vista Apartments (3700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE) to do her grocery shopping.
That’s when Curbside Groceries pulls up. On a gray, overcast Friday, she walks up to the mobile grocery truck to buy chicken wings, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, onions, eggs and cabbage ‒ oh, and turkey neck. While doing her shopping she confers with Gerald, her curbside grocer, whom she has gotten to know well. She’s been shopping at the truck for about three months now.
Curbside Groceries has been parking outside Vista for nearly a year. Before Sylvia shopped there, she would trek to the Tiger Market, about a mile-and-a-half away, or sometimes to the Giant Food near Eastover Shopping Center. “The Giant is too much for me to handle,” she said.
She doesn’t only mean getting there ‒ it’s a mile away, across the District border with Maryland. She also means walking around the large supermarket once she gets there to do her shopping, and then making the return.
Trips like the one to Giant Food are not an impossibility for Sylvia, who is 75, but it’s a tall order. The grocery truck parked outside the Vista lobby makes healthy food readily accessible, she said. “Mostly when I get everything from here, I really don’t need to go nowhere else.”
Bringing Fresh to the Community
The idea for Curbside Groceries came straight from the community. A few years ago, Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) staff did a survey to understand the food concerns in Wards 7 and 8. They heard loud and clear that access to grocery stores was a big challenge for many, especially in specific neighborhoods.
“We recognized that there was a huge opportunity to provide groceries to those communities without grocery stores,” said Molly McGlinchy, CAFB’s deputy chief of programs and innovations.
Communities on the east side of the river have far fewer grocery stores than those on the west side. The DC Policy Center has identified certain areas including Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, Mayfair and Ivy City as having most of District’s food deserts. Many have a household income well below the city’s mean and no access to a vehicle. With stores outside reasonable walking distance, it’s difficult to get healthy groceries each week.
CAFB considered a few ways to provide that access. One was by providing rides to and from grocery stores in a partnership with Lyft. At the same time, CAFB started working on the Curbside Groceries program to bring stores to the people. Today two Curbside Groceries trucks operate, one in Ward 8 and the other in Prince George’s County. The trucks are paid for by corporate partners including Giant Food and the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation.
The DC truck, launched just before the pandemic hit, makes two hour-long stops daily in up to four different locations, Wednesday through Saturday. “We recognized that this was a needed resource, especially in the pandemic response,” said McGlinchy. “But we also needed to be very mindful of the way we were operating to ensure that our shoppers were safe.”
With health and safety in mind, the trucks changed the way they were initially conceived. Originally, they were to be stores on wheels. Customers were going to enter and shop inside the truck. Curbside Groceries pivoted, now operating more like a food truck. Shoppers order from a menu outside and staff retrieve the selected items.
A mobile grocery store can be particularly helpful for senior shoppers. “When we zoomed out and thought about the goal of the truck itself,” noted McGlinchy, “it’s really to address those access barriers, and oftentimes that means mobility constraints.” She continued, “Individuals don’t have the ability to get to a grocery store without taking multiple buses. This way we could provide a valuable resource and remove some of those barriers to accessing fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a whole market basket of groceries.”
A Full Market Basket
The truck’s stainless steel shelves display baskets with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables. Pricing is on par with Lidl, slightly below Trader Joe’s. Trucks accept cash, credit, debit and SNAP/EBT.
The items are carefully considered. In addition to produce, customers can buy eggs, salmon, chicken wings and milk, all kept refrigerated and fresh, as well as canned and frozen foods. “We wanted to make sure that we have a full market basket,” explained McGlinchy.
To ensure that customers could get all the items that they need, CAFB consults with retailers to see which items move better than others. And they ask community members what they are looking for when they go to the store. When the grocery truck pulled up to Vista Apartments, it was well-stocked with the cabbage Sylvia bought to fry up for a St Patrick’s Day meal.
Fruits and vegetables are consistently the top sellers, McGlinchy said. “That tells us anecdotally what we’ve already known for so long, that there’s a huge demand for nutritious food options in some of these areas that have been labelled food deserts.”
When Good Food Markets closed down fresh food operations earlier this year, Curbside Groceries came to the site three times a week to ensure continuity of access. Good Foods’ sales data gives insight into what is selling week-to-week. “Part of the model that’s so important is that we continue to hear from our shoppers,” McGlinchy said.
CAFB would like to see the Curbside Groceries provide access to even more areas. The long term goal, according to McGlinchy, is to have the program operated by residents of the community. CAFB would provide the trucks and members of the community would manage the program. That idea is still a zygote, McGlinchy said. They aren’t yet sure how that might look and what role CAFB would take.
But expanding access to healthy food is the priority, and it’s definitely working for residents like Sylvia. If you want Curbside Groceries to come to your neighborhood, call Capital Area Food Bank for an evaluation to see if there is a good match. Check out www.curbsidegroceries.org.