All photos by Chase Castor.

This Mobile Grocery Store Wants to Eliminate Food Deserts in Kansas City

Rollin’ Grocer is the first mobile grocery store in Kansas City, Missouri, bringing fresh food to the city's urban core.

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May 3 2016, 4:00pm

All photos by Chase Castor.

"It's what you can get away with, what you value, or who you think is valuable. If you have an idea of who that is for you, then you treat them according to what you think they deserve."

I'm standing at the corner of 54th and Troost with Natasha, one of the founding team members of Rollin' Grocer, the first mobile grocery store in Kansas City, Missouri. She is explaining the differences in products found in a suburban grocery store versus the grocery store located a few miles from us, how a full service grocery store here in the urban core is frequently stocked with expiring or poor quality options.

In general, Kansas City has a lot going for it: a thriving art community, multiple major universities, and opportunities to access locally sourced or healthy foods—if you live in the right part of town or have a car to get you around. Unfortunately, like many cities in the United States, Kansas City is also experiencing the development of food deserts in its urban core.

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All photos by Chase Castor.

By and large, food deserts are the result of changing market trends that demand larger stores and shifts in population density over the last several decades.

"We have more grocery store square feet in this country than we did 60 years ago, but we have fewer stores. The stores have gone where population density is greatest, in suburban or wealthy areas," explains Beth Low, vice president of KC Healthy Kids.

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"Grocery stores in low-income, low-population-density areas struggle to break even and struggle to reinvest to keep their store competitive. Many of their shoppers start to shop elsewhere in search of better-quality food or a better shopping experience, and many urban grocers continue to fail to break even and have to close their doors."

This is the exact challenge Rollin' Grocer hopes to address as a mobile grocery store. In January 2015, Jessica Royer and Natasha Ria El-Scari first began plans to launch their unique business and opened their doors a little over a year later, in March of this year.

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The morning I meet them, I watch as Jay Kelso, officially known as the "Lover of Logistics," and team members Ian and Priest set up the truck for their first stop. They begin by removing straps from the cooler's doors, which are put in place to keep the doors closed while they move from stop to stop.

"These hold the product from falling," Jay explains, removing black poster board from the front of the shelves. "The biggest challenge is keeping everything in place. There is really no rule book or supplies."

Next, they set to work righting ketchup bottles and boxes of macaroni and cheese that toppled over during their drive. Jay picks through the produce, pulling out some wilted celery and explaining how the whole truck is set up for minimal waste. Any product that is out of date is donated to food pantries, and produce that is past its prime is composted and donated to local gardeners.

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Just as they finish setting up the store, Natasha, whose official title is "Conscious Community Connector," joins us on the truck.

"I've got presents!" she announces, pulling out nametags for each of the stores employees. Rollin' Grocer employs ten team members, all of whom are paid. Although they are open to the help of volunteers, they haven't had time to sift through countless offers to help. In their sixth week of business, they are still working on sorting out the logistics of their unusual business model: building inventory, buying nametags, and trying to find new places to stop throughout the city.

While Natasha visits with employees and tidies up behind the checkout counter, she explains her biggest challenges as the person in charge of managing the grocery store's brand.

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"Because it's so new, it is easy for people to say, 'Oh! You are this or you are that,' and we gotta go, 'No, we're not!'"

So what exactly is and isn't Rollin' Grocer? It's not a food pantry, nor a nonprofit organization, and this was difficult for some individuals in the community to comprehend at first.

"When we first started, we heard from two different sectors," Natasha tells me. "We had nonprofits saying, 'So, you're not giving food away? These are poor people!' and then the for-profit sector was saying, 'Why would you make a business relying on people in a food desert and poor people?'"

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As a for-profit grocery store on wheels, Rollin' Grocer provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables, pantry staples, meat, and households items to the populations in Kansas City who have the most trouble easily buying these items. It's able to accept all major credit cards, cash, and EBT, which allows them to serve individuals from all income levels.

On certain days of the week, you might find the truck at retirement communities located in the urban core, or down the block from a university in the heart of the city, where students don't have a grocery store within walking distance. Later in the week, it will park outside of Gregg Tabernacle A.M.E. Church, so that members can pick up groceries after attending services.

"Sometimes in the urban core we have 'food marts' that really are just liquor stores that may carry potato chips," Natasha explains further. "They're not necessarily full grocers, where you can go in and have enough to prepare a healthy meal."

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When I walk on the truck, I'm amazed to find it stocked with just about every basic item one might need to feed a family healthy meals for the week. A floor-to-ceiling freezer is filled with frozen vegetables, meat, and ice cream. A cooler has fresh vegetables, both conventional and lactose-free milk, cheese, and lunch meat. To the left, a shelf is filled with a wide variety of fruits. The rest of the truck is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves, which are stocked with canned foods, dry beans and rice, boxes of Hamburger Helper, and spices—just to name a few.

"We have all the bad stuff, too," Natasha jokes, pointing at a candy bar display under the counter. "We carry it all, in small quantities."

Because Rollin' Grocer carries such a wide variety of foods in small amounts, it faces challenges when pricing products.

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"When we went into it, we said that we would make our prices comparable to Walmart, but we're only buying 36 units," Natasha explains. "So, we can't necessarily compete in that way because of how we purchase. It is one of the things we have to address because we have to make sure we can be a sustainable business."

In comparison, deciding which products to carry in the store has not been challenging at all. From the start, Natasha and Jessica knew they wanted to offer exactly what the communities they serve have requested, while also providing them with new options. In the beginning, they sent out surveys and even hosted an event for the community to share what they hoped to buy when they visit the store.

Now that they are in operation, they keep a wall of Post-Its behind the checkout counter—a list of requests from the customers who come through.

"We went to one of our elder homes and they wanted us to carry Vienna sausage and Spam," Natasha tells me. "It was so funny, because that was one of our opening jokes: 'Ew! No Vienna sausage and Spam!'

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"Of course, we had an idea of what we wanted to carry, but we made a commitment that we would not be pretentious in what we carry," Natasha explains. "So, if people requested something, even if we didn't like it or think it was a great choice, we would still carry it. Carrying things people actually want to buy is important."

Since March, Rollin' Grocer has established 15 regular stops and is aiming to add ten more in the near future. In general, their needs are simple: They can't block traffic, they want to be near a bus stop, and they want space for their customers to drive up if they are in a car.

This particular stop, 54th and Troost, is a new one near two major universities. This is their second day parking here and they spend most of their time canvassing the surrounding blocks. They don't have any customers during the two hours they're parked, but Natasha assures me this is normal for a new stop. Her main focus is making sure they establish a consistent presence in this part of the city. A few minutes before they pack up, a community center employee stops by and asks for fliers for their community bulletin board.

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As for the future of the Rollin' Grocer, Natasha says she hopes to add as many trucks as is needed to give the food insecure populations in the city access to the healthy food they need to thrive.

But first, she wants to be sure this first truck is done right.

"We want to make this amazing," Natasha says, pointing to the truck in front of us. "We are interested in having the type of store that people choose to shop at—not because they have to, but because they actually want to."