Spreading the Health Across Boston
If you rely on public transportation, and the nearest grocery store is farther than anyone would want to walk hauling bags of groceries, it can be challenging to get healthy fruits and vegetables on the table on a regular basis. Underserved communities, where residents often rely on convenience stores and fast food–food deserts as they’re known–are linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses; it’s just a fact. So, it seemed like a no-brainer when, five years ago, Josh Trautwein and Annika Morgan founded Fresh Truck, a mobile market that hits the road six days a week, rolling into Boston neighborhoods where a need has been identified.
In 2016, when we highlighted Fresh Truck on Craving Boston, it wasn’t just the converted school bus, decked out with brightly painted fruits and vegetables, that grabbed our attention. Josh and Annika were combining access to good food with programs to educate and inspire healthy eating. Pop-up food and health focused events, nutrition workshops, and cooking demos helped further the mission, which was not only to bring healthy food into underserved neighborhoods, but also to raise the public health awareness of communities, and in turn raise the health quotient of those communities.
That was then; Fresh Truck has been working to fill an important niche in Boston neighborhoods and is, frankly, just a great idea. But the team behind the operation has not been content to stop at that. Instead it has steadily sought out new ways to adapt, and to enhance the efficacy of the business. I recently caught wind of some exciting new developments coming out of Fresh Truck and, curious to learn more I set off, one late-spring afternoon, for the Dorchester Head Start & Early Head Start, where the mobile market parks once a week. As I round the corner, the vibrant colors of the bus are easy to spot and a welcoming sight.
Immediately, I’m impressed with how many people are aboard. The bus is packed with shoppers, poring over bins stocked full of hearty looking potatoes, robust eggplants, lettuces, peppers, onions, cabbages and fruits. The operations team is smart about buying food for competitive prices, allowing customers to purchase high quality produce for the same affordable rates.
The truck being standing room only, I sit down with Fresh Truck co-founders Josh and Annika in the nearby HeadStart. As we start to talk, it becomes eminently clear that five years into the venture, Fresh Truck is not putting on the brakes. A third truck, complete with refrigeration for perishables, climate control and a new retail layout, will be joining the fleet this August, and a brick and mortar space to serve as a home base is in the works. “We’re currently at capacity for how many shoppers we can serve.” says Josh, “So the extra truck, and having a base for operations, will help us manage that demand, making our day-to-day more seamless and effective.” Annika continues, “We’re now serving 17 locations across the city, up from just 6, in 2015, and we’ve partnered with Sweetgreen, who helped us design and build our second mobile market vehicle. We’ve expanded our offerings to include nutritious prepared foods, snacks, dairy, and whole grains, and we have a nutritionist on the bus one day a week to help guide customers. Fresh Truck is also a vendor for the Healthy Incentives Program and we are seeing huge engagement across all of our locations. People are loving the program.”
The key to Fresh Truck’s success may lie in partnerships like this, created with local healthcare providers and other businesses. Particularly exciting is the “food prescription” program run with the help of Brigham & Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Hyde Park and Roslindale. FreshRx, as it’s known, allows doctors, teachers, housing officials, and other community leaders to purchase gift cards or “Fresh Cash” from Fresh Truck, which they distribute to families in need, at weekly market sites or pop-up programs.
Tying financial assistance to healthy food has been the ace-in-the-hole for the Fresh Truck mission. Josh explains that, before Fresh Cash, there was a missing component in the Fresh Truck operation. “For a long time, the conversation was centered around access to healthy food and community engagement–if we can bring healthy food closer to communities and educate, it might increase healthy eating. But integrating access and community engagement with purchasing power; this has been a powerful driver and source of empowerment for people.” The Faulkner is already seeing the difference. For example, A1c levels in patients using “Fresh Cash” are going down (high levels can indicate diabetes), and an additional 500 patients are being enrolled in the program this summer.
And so, Fresh Truck’s broader vision, to become an integrated part of Boston’s healthcare system, is fast becoming a reality, as the team continues to come up with creative ways to use the truck and celebrate food, something Annika and Josh are both passionate about. Josh is particularly animated when talking about initiatives involving kids, the block partys and pop-up events, for example. “We had over 100 of these last year.” He says, “Kids get to learn where their food comes from. One program that we do every year is in partnership with Freedom Schools. Every week there’s a parent pot luck with cooking demos, for which Fresh Truck provides the food. Parents and grandparents share their food culture, and the young kids are the scholars. The biggest thrill,” Josh continues, “is being involved in these grass roots programs, where we involve parents and genuinely committed youth leaders, and everyone is pulling in the same direction to support the community.”
It was exhilarating to hear Josh and Annika talk, and to think about the potential, neighborhood by neighborhood, for Fresh Truck to effect real, measurable and positive change. So much more than a mobile market, the grocery store on wheels has come a long way since they first hit the streets five years ago and I for one left the visit a Fresh Truck evangelist.