Mobile markets bring fresh food to Wisconsin customers
September 20, 2022

This story also appeared on

For Shirley Johnson, grocery shopping isn’t easy.

Johnson, a 64-year-old retiree living alone in Milwaukee, does not own a vehicle and must rely on others for food. He often calls his daughter or other family members who live in the city, hoping to take a tour to the grocery store.

But if they’re busy or busy, Johnson has to pay someone to take her to the grocery store, except when the store comes to her.

Once a month, Johnson waits for a long, colorful trailer hitched to a truck to pull up in the Highland Gardens apartments. The narrow corridors of the Piggly Wiggly on Wheels are filled with fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products.

“We appreciate that truck because many of us can’t get to the store,” said Johnson, who buys staples and specialty items including Lactaid for his lactose intolerance.

Thanks to a federal contribution, food is sold for half the price. Johnson, like some others who shop on the mobile market, receives FoodShare and struggles to afford certain foods in regular stores.

Some nonprofits are turning to these mobile markets as an alternative to physical stores to reach food-insecure populations.

Most Milwaukee residents are believed to have poor access to grocery stores, which is further complicated by a transportation barrier: 13.4 percent of Milwaukee households have no vehicles, according to census data.

Without the mobile marketplace, Highlands Gardens resident Shirley Johnson, 64, has to rely on her family or pay drivers to shop. “This is a lot easier for me, so I won’t have to go to the store because they come to me,” Johnson says. “Yes, Piggly Wiggly is coming to me.” (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

But mobile markets can struggle to stay financially afloat. One researcher who has studied mobile markets for over a decade compares them to “revolving doors” because of the frequency with which mobile market projects start and then crash.

“There is often funding to start them,” said Lydia Zepeda, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The question is to try to find a model that is financially sustainable, because they are expensive.”

‘Thinking outside the box’: Mobile markets

The Hunger Task Force, a non-profit organization based in Milwaukee, has partnered with Piggly Wiggly to offer mobile grocery stores.

“You have to be really creative if you want to solve problems like food insecurity,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

He added: “Always doing everything the same is not the answer, but thinking outside the box about what already works.”

All mobile market groceries are sold for half price thanks to a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Cash is not allowed, but debit, credit, and cards for the state food assistance program, FoodShare, are accepted.

The mobile market stops in community centers, senior housing facilities, public housing complexes and schools in food deserts identified throughout the metropolitan region, from Brown Deer to Franklin. On average, 25 to 35 people use the market at each stop, Tussler said.

According to 2019 data collected by a mobile market counter, 88% of purchases at the market directly benefited children. The elderly also benefit.

“Many of these senior condos are located in food deserts,” said Rick Lewandowski, director of senior services for the Hunger Task Force. “We know it’s hard for seniors to get to grocery stores, so they have to pay someone to get there and they already have a limited budget.”

‘Piggy Wiggly Comes to Me’

The market does not carry processed or canned foods. Tussler said this incentivizes people to eat healthy when they often can’t afford to.

“They use their limited FoodShare resources to get on board (the mobile market) and get all the fresh foods that create meals rather than things to eat,” Tussler said.

Johnson said the strategy works by helping customers with hypertension and diabetes make healthier choices.

“They have good quality stuff,” Johnson said. “And, you know, this is a lot easier for me, so I won’t have to go to the store because they come to me. Yes, Piggly Wiggly comes to me.

Cornelius Sawyer, president of Highland Garden, said that in addition to the mobile market, residents over the age of 60 can purchase a “stockbox”, filled with healthy foods including rice, pasta and vegetables that the Hunger Task Force offers to seniors. low income for free.

Lois Brown, 68, is helped with her groceries by Rick Lewandowski, Director of Senior Services at the Hunger Task Force, after shopping at the mobile market on March 16, 2022. The shop on wheels serves areas in designated food deserts, making stops at community centers, senior housing facilities, public housing complexes and schools in Milwaukee County. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Among the Stockboxes and other items available on the mobile market, 68-year-old shopper Lois Brown said the amenities are “a blessing through and through” for Highland Garden Apartments residents, particularly those who are homebound.

“Mostly I go out every month,” Brown said. “Rain, winter, sun or snow”.


But bringing groceries to shoppers comes at a high cost.

Nonprofit mobile markets require external funding from sponsors or grants, which can be short-lived, impacting the sustainability of operations. Food is also often sold at reduced prices, ultimately hurting mobile market profits, according to Zepeda’s 2016 study. And even when food is sold at retail price, that often doesn’t cover expenses, Zepeda said.

“Overall, if I had to put pen and paper into it, it would be pretty much even, if not a bit negative,” said Ralph Malicki, owner of Malicki’s Piggly Wiggly in Racine, who works with the Hunger Task Force to manage the market. mobile phone.

Piggly Wiggly supplies the market with fresh produce and healthy foods, and with the help of a federal grant, all food is offered at half the retail cost to any shopper who visits the market. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, says the market aims to incentivize people to eat healthy, which can be difficult to do on a tight budget. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Zepeda estimates that the vehicle alone costs around $ 150,000. Even a cheaper used vehicle often requires modifications ranging from $ 50,000 to $ 75,000, he said. The Hunger Task Force also has to hire a Class A semi-trailer driver to operate the vehicle, which adds quite heavily to the cost, according to Lewandowski.

“(Mobile markets) have their place, but they don’t need a lot of people,” Zepeda said. “If you are trying to solve hunger, mobile markets are not the answer. They are a solution, but they are not the solution.”

Malicki knows this from firsthand experience. The mobile phone market he ran in the Kenosha and Racine areas failed because “We couldn’t get enough traffic for the trailers. We haven’t been able to get enough consumer support to make it work. ”

Expansion in place?

Some valuable lessons have emerged from the Hunger Task Force’s mobile marketplace. According to a report from Milwaukee Fresh Food Access, data collected from mobile markets could be used to determine potential locations for grocery stores. For example, Tussler said that when the mobile market was stationed for two weeks outside of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, she showed there weren’t enough customers to support a grocery store in that food wasteland.

Lois Brown, 68, shoots at the Hunger Task Force Mobile Market outside the Highland Garden apartments in Milwaukee on March 16, 2022. The Highland Gardens resident says the Mobile Market makes shopping more convenient, because she has no way to get it. to a normal grocery store. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Tussler said the Hunger Task Force is working with small brick-and-mortar chains to offer the same 50% offerings provided in mobile markets to incentivize agricultural purchases. So far, the nonprofit has partnered with the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland and the Outpost Natural Food Cooperative in Milwaukee to offer discounts on half of the products.

Malicki and Tussler say they are committed to continuing mobile markets in Milwaukee, which have been going strong for five years. And relaunching a trailer in Kenosha and Racine isn’t out of the question, Malicki said.

“If we can achieve this success here, it could be a nationwide model that could be used in different food deserts in various areas where there isn’t much appetite to build a brick and mortar place,” Malicki said. “Being part of something like this is incredible. If we could set the pace at which it can be doubled in other areas of the country, that would be fantastic. ”

While mobile markets aren’t a perfect or permanent solution to food deserts, Johnson has no complaints and two suggestions. He would like to see a wider variety of foods and “We just want them to come twice a month”.

Journalist Erin Gretzinger contributed to this report. The non-profit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, published or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or its affiliates.

This article first appeared on and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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