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Grocery trucks serving local urban food deserts

What Sacramento could use are more grocery trucks with affordable fresh produce to serve seniors who can't drive to supermarkets or carry heavy packages and young parents at home with new babies or small children who find supermarket prices for fresh produce beyond their budget. If you check out the February 19, 2014 article in the Los Angeles times by Soumya Karlamangla, "Produce trucks a slice of home for Latino immigrants," you'll find a very practical feature of how children line up when the produce truck comes through their neighborhood in areas of California far from local supermarkets.

Urban food deserts and grocery trucks.
Anne Hart, photography. Mural on store wall, midtown Sacramento, November 2013.

Should you call these produce trucks rather than sundry or convenience trucks if what they sell are far more convenience store packaged snacks and sundries than a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables? After all, when you buy the produce, you have to make a profit on it and mark up the price from what you paid.

Grocery trucks that come to your street

Sacramento can use more of these produce trucks which are affordable, and not just in areas where there are low-income people far from food markets, but also seniors who need the produce such as vegetables and fruit who either can't walk to markets, can't get to the bus stop and haul heavy shopping bags, or are out of breath from pushing their utility carts to markets far from home to buy the weekly grocery items.

Many seniors or parents at home with small children and new infants can't get to Sacramento's famous food trucks that usually sell to working adults on lunch hour or others who line up to get the tasty hot foods during the afternoon. But who caters to the homebased person living too far to walk to a local food market? If you're an elderly nondriver who pays a few dollars for a bus ride to a food market, lugging heavy shopping bags that often rip on the way home, you're out of breath before you walk a few blocks carrying the groceries.

So you are happy if a truck comes into the neighborhood. Don't confuse this type of truck with the organic produce truck or grocery shopping vehicle that delivers to your door what you order online or on the phone

And you wish the truck would have affordable organic vegetables and fruits, which may not be at your supermarket. You also hope the price will be affordable to your neighborhood budget. The type of trucks that deliver groceries to your door are expensive, and usually you have to order a certain number of items.

On the other hand, if there's a daily truck with groceries and vegetables, fruit, and hopefully organic items you want, and you know that each day at a certain time the truck comes down your street, why that would be wonderful as long as you can afford the items.

Too many salty, fatty, or sugary snacks and sweet sodas are what kids buy after school

The sad part of the story is that when these type of grocery trucks roll down a low-income block, the children pour out for snacks, usually of the type that will rot their teeth or create high blood glucose surges. Older folks may buy the vegetables, but the kids are long-hooked on the commercial packaged snacks that are either salty, fatty, or sugary, rather than buying apples or collards, kale or fresh red cabbage and carrots to make a delicious salad. The trucks can become used more like convenience stores selling processed snacks along with the produce. But why are children buying more packaged snacks that fresh apples?

That's because the packaged snacks are what they munch on at home, at school, and maybe find in local convenience stores, or if their parents take them to fast-food eateries because dollar burgers can feed more people and fill them up than trying to divide one or two apples among a family that leaves them hungry a few minutes later. Have you ever seen a child after school rushing to buy fresh fruit from a food truck if there was a choice of cotton candy or packaged sweet, fatty, and salty snacks such as crisps, pretzels, or chips?

Roving trucks selling produce and snacks or sundry items are familiar in Southern California

Many of these trucks go to minority neighborhood selling ethnic foods, such as the food trucks that go through neighborhoods far from supermarkets.

The trucks operate something like the old Good Humor man that used to roll down neighborhood streets in the 1950s selling ice cream. But instead, today's grocery trucks that ply low-income neighborhoods are not like the grocery delivery trucks that cater to upscale neighborhoods where comparatively 'richer' senior citizens and other people, including busy moms, and those working at home, may have specialty organic produce delivered to their doorstep, at a price.

For the grocery trucks plying the lower-income, usually ethnic neighborhoods, the grocery trucks usually act something like the Good Humor man used to do, with sound....a certain type of toots and beeps to announce the truck is on the block

In the ethnic neighborhoods (that are not always low-income, of course) people line up at the back of the produce truck to buy from an array of groceries and sundries, including vegetables and fruits. The grocery trucks are familiar to the neighborhoods. They do not secretly stop at one particular front door to deliver groceries ordered online or by phone like some of the delivery trucks for richer neighborhoods that bring special orders of gourmet or organic foods to one family at a time.

The truck in the poorer neighborhoods are selling groceries to anyone who lines up. The sundry items might include bathroom tissue, vegetables such as zucchini, avocados, cans of sugary soda from a cooler, bags of snack items, cotton candy, salty chips or other commercial, processed packaged snacks, and other items like you'd see in a convenience market in the middle of a low-income the fresh produce and fruit, that you may not see in convenience stores.

The truck can return to the same streets several times daily

That type of poor man's grocery truck is like a convenience store on wheels plus the fresh produce. The kids buy not apples and bananas so much but more like packages of Cheetos and Ruffles, as you can read in the Los Angeles Times article.

In order to make money, people so familiar with junk food snacks and soda cans aren't going to be buying just the fresh vegetables and fruits and nothing else. They want foods they've seen before and were able to afford in the past that filled them up, salty, fatty, or sweet starchy fillers and sodas. They need the toilet paper, and aren't going to walk for miles when the grocery truck carries rolls of what is needed for basic hygiene.

How does this compare with open-air farmers' markets?

In one way, it's like the farmers' markets are coming to your block. You don't have to wait for a special day of the week and then take a bus ride to a farmer's market in some parking lot behind a shopping center. Then you don't have to lug packages home.

If you live a few houses down from where the grocery truck stops, you can pile the packages into your utility cart or your child's stroller, or in back of a bike. Then again, the stuff sold is more like a convenience store than an upscale organic produce market with pricey gourmet items or specialty vegetables, fruits, and nuts. But it could be.

More grocery trucks could ply the streets of Sacramento, catering also to all income levels with fresh produce not mainly snack items, and be more like a natural foods market and less like a convenience store. The only problem with that is for the person in the middle income group, the food trucks are eagerly needed in the low-income areas of Sacramento with basic items such as toilet paper, vegetables, fruits, and sundries. And for the middle-income areas of modest home owners, it might carry those organic vegetables and fruits so desired by those without easy access to and from supermarkets due to age or disability, or due to being at home with small children, new babies, or working online at home.

The open-air market concept

A grocery truck that stops on residential streets rather than near offices like food trucks do, lets customers on one block at a time line up to buy groceries and sundries. It lets neighbors talk and meet, more like a block party of sorts where people who live on the same street can meet and chat.

People who can't grow tomatoes in the winter in their yard can buy vegetables. They also should be told where the tomatoes came from and whether they're organic or not. According to the Los Angeles Times article, about 600 grocery trucks are licensed in Los Angeles and Orange counties. But Sacramento also could use these types of trucks in middle income neighborhoods, not only in ethnic, especially Latino neighborhoods between Van Nuys and Santa Ana. Here, in Sacramento, it's the seniors and those at home who can't easily get to supermarkets or can't afford the produce there who would love to have grocery trucks on their street at a certain time each day.

On the other hand, you have neighbors who would complain about the noise of such grocery trucks making beeps, shouts, or other noise to let people know the truck is on the block. For example, when the ice cream truck comes down certain streets in summer, there are neighbors who complain about the loud music played by the truck that's disturbing to those working at home or napping.

Another market for grocery trucks are kids looking for after-school snacks

The Los Angeles Times has photos of one grocery truck selling to the after-school kids who rush to buy snacks. But it's parents and older people who buy produce, and kids who rush in for the packages of chips or candy and soda. Theoretically, at least, grocery trucks, unlike most food trucks might carry healthier foods and possibly handouts on how to eat healthier.

Once in a while someone might speak publicly from the truck on nutrition, but would they have a market of kids rushing after school to buy snacks? The grocery trucks are about being catalysts of community life. It's ethnic commerce that offer food to immigrants who pass traditions from one generation to the next about home cooking preferences.

These grocery truck ideas could be taken to new markets, if the price is right, to sell to people at home during the afternoons and to children after school

More produce trucks are needed in Sacramento by those who eat a lot of produce, such as vegetarians. But can they thrive outside the ethnic neighborhoods who are far from local supermarket chains? Or would you rather visit farmers' markets if they came to your closest shopping mall each week all year?

You have them in Southern California serving the migrant experience, says Mark Vallianatos, who has studied street vending as policy director of Occidental College's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, the Los Angeles Times article notes.

Now the question remains, would grocery trucks be welcome in Sacramento outside the Latino or other ethnic areas? Would they be viewed as rolling convenience stores? Unlike convenience stores, they don't sell liquor and cigarettes. But they do have necessities such as sundry items like bathroom tissue. It's what you need when you can't get to the supermarket and your family is out of it.

Here, in Sacramento, private space and public space can co-mingle

The person who designs a grocery truck needs a cooler or a type of ice chest for cold items such as soda cans. The owner would have to rise early to buy fruit and vegetables at a large market that sells wholesale to food and grocery trucks. There's traffic to get stuck in. And then the route starts in early morning.

Where do you go during the day when most people are at work? Do you choose which neighborhoods have people at home? Do you focus on senior living apartments or communities? A large part of the business for grocery trucks comes from kids leaving school. That takes you to the mid afternoon hours. Kids buy a lot of processed snacks because they see those on TV or in vending machines or at other convenience stores and at fast-food eateries.

One big issue is if you're buying produce at low prices from markets and then selling them to the public, frequently poor people, you still have to jack up the price on the fresh vegetables and fruits to make any profit. And usually, your profit is tiny.

California cities regulate where trucks can park

In Sacramento, it's a matter of how long you can park. You can't go down streets at night selling sundries, food, or other items from a grocery truck. You have to find out what the laws are about food and grocery trucks in certain areas at certain hours.

There is a lot of benefits to immigrants and food trucks to provide groceries in what areas with a lack of supermarkets are referred to as urban food deserts. You have areas of Sacramento and other cities with not enough access nearby to affordable fresh produce and food. Too many people are buying what they eat from convenience stores. In ethnic neighborhoods, usually there are ethnic food markets.

So are grocery trucks bringing ethnic foods to neighborhoods instead of people walking with utility carts to the stores, if they are not driving? They do cut down on traffic. Just look at the number of cars in parking lots of supermarkets compared to how many people are lugging bags of groceries on busses or the light rail in Sacramento.

If you live far from the nearest grocery, you'd welcome a grocery truck if you had no other way to buy food, hygiene supplies, or other sundry items. Older nondrivers are tired of hauling bags of food home from stores that are too far for walking, or if they're in wheelchairs, inconvenient.

You have for grocery trucks, a golden time when the school kids line up. Then they're gone, and few people are coming for your bread. You wonder about the shelf life of the bread. But you can sell the fruit. You could park near bus stops for a short time to meet the foot traffic of the nondrivers and perhaps sell some food or other sundry items. But don't park by the bus stop that's next to the supermarket parking lot.

Many customers are living in apartments when grocery trucks arrive on their street

Adults buy food they cook frequently such as onions and potatoes. But it would be great if the food truck sold purple sweet potatoes, something you can't find frequently in many supermarkets these days. But then again, grocery trucks are supposed to serve neighborhoods where people aren't looking for luxury foods. Usually by the dinner hour, the truck closes down.

Yes, it would be nice to be able to cater to both the low-income neighborhoods and the middle-income homes where the people really are looking for those organic purple sweet potatoes they can't find in many local supermarkets. Who buys these things? Seniors who don't drive, for example, and don't want to spend two hours going from Arden Arcade to Midtown Sacramento to look for organic produce such as those purple sweet potatoes or similar items.

After all, there aren't enough sidewalks on Marconi Avenue to take a senior with a utility cart on a walk along the wet curbs with heavy traffic between Watt Avenue and Fulton Avenue to find organic produce in one store or another. And the number 22 bus isn't running more frequently than once an hour and nothing on weekends to get to Eastern and Arden where there's a lot of organic produce. On the other hand, if you live in a lower-income ethnic area and want your traditional foods, and there are no supermarkets near you, the food truck does fill an urgent need to find food and sundries near your home. For now, the grocery trucks of Southern California are featured in the news.

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