Detroit Truck Responds To City's Food Desert Crisis

Detroit's inner city is home to one of the worst "food deserts" in the country. One researcher found that in 2007, more than half a million city residents live in areas where it's far easier to find a fast-food restaurant than it is to find a mainstream grocery store. "Peaches & Greens" was born to help residents access good produce right where they live. Like an ice cream truck wandering summer neighborhoods, Peaches & Greens sends a truck out to offer fresh produce, wandering central city streets to get nutritious food where residents can get to it without a long drive, bus or cab ride. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lisa Johanon, executive director of Peaches & Greens, and Marvin Jenkins, a truck driver for Peaches & Greens who knows first - hand the welcome this two-year old business has received street by street.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, you know about Fashion Week in New York. We usually touch on it at least once or twice a year on this program. The city of Detroit has also got a Fashion Week. It's a serious one meant to showcase edgy designers and new looks. And we will talk about it in a few minutes.

But first, as we head to Detroit for an event tonight and our program tomorrow from member station WDET, we want to tell you about another way people in that city are innovating to serve residents. We're talking food.

Now, for some time now, Detroit has been considered one of the worst food deserts in the country. And that means that there is no large chain grocery store operating within that city. There are only a couple of dozen smaller grocery stores within the city. And that means that fresh produce is much harder to get than it is in most other urban areas.

And that is where Peaches and Greens comes in, right on the streets where people live. Peaches and Greens sends out a truck, just like an ice cream truck, to roam the neighborhoods. It stops when people flag it down. And it parks right where people gather. Peaches and Greens is also a brick and mortar produce store in Detroit. They grow some of their own food and they buy some from Michigan growers.

And we wanted to talk more about this concept so we've called Lisa Johanon, executive director of the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp. that runs Peaches and Greens, also with us, Marvin Jenkins, a driver for Peaches and Greens. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. MARVIN JENKINS (Driver, Peaches and Greens): Thank you.

Ms. LISA JOHANON (Director, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp.): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: I'm hungry just thinking about it. You're making me hungry just thinking about what's on that truck right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mr. Jenkins, what's on your truck right now?

Mr. JENKINS: I have peaches, plums, apples, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, garlic, bananas, watermelon - whole watermelon, watermelon cups.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. Okay, okay, now, it's almost too much. It's almost too much. It's almost more than I can take.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What's your favorite, Mr. Jenkins? What's selling well and what's your personal favorite?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, bananas, they sell real good. Watermelon cups, they sell real good. Really, all of it sells real good.

MARTIN: Well, good.

Ms. JOHANON: Fruit more so than vegetables.

Mr. JENKINS: Especially the summertime, fruit goes faster. Wintertime, vegetables go. That's when people stay in the house and cook.

MARTIN: Okay. That makes sense to me. So, Lisa, how did this idea come about?

Ms. JOHANON: Well, it came about from living in the community and seeing the need. I'm having to drive every week 10 miles away to get the kind of produce that I want to serve my family. And so I got to thinking, well, if this is my issue, it's got to be my neighbors' issue. And my neighbor may not have a car and makes it even more challenging for them. So, some people dream dreams that are, you know, world peace, we just dream the dream of having produce in our neighborhood.

MARTIN: A 2007 study to that point found that Detroit residents have to travel at least twice as far to get to the nearest grocery store, as they do to get to the nearest fast food restaurant or convenience store.

So, what did you do first? I mean did the idea come to you full blown? Because what I was thinking is this is actually kind of back to the future. If you grew up in cities decades ago, back, you know, in the '10s and the '20s, then there were people who would come around in their carts and everything pretty much was sold from carts.

Ms. JOHANON: Well, the funny thing is the produce truck itself was kind of an afterthought. After we developed a business plan for a produce market, I'd read about People's Grocery in Oakland, California. And said, wow, that's great. But, you know, when you read their literature on their website, they said the model doesn't work. And they actually shut their truck down a year or two ago.

And I ignored that part and said, we can make it work in Detroit. This is -it's very old school. And so we tried to go to different spots and sit there. And that did not work. And so we came up with the idea of driving the streets like an ice cream truck. And we do have a loudspeaker and we do play our little song: Peaches and Greens nutritious and delicious. Marvin probably knows all the words. I don't.

Mr. JENKINS: (Singing) Fresh fruits and vegetables.

MARTIN: Okay, go ahead, let's hear it. Come on, Mr. Jenkins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Come on, do your thing. Let's hear it.

Ms. JOHANON: Go for it, buddy.

Mr. JENKINS: I wish I could've brought the tape with me so you could hear it.

Ms. JOHANON: It's hilarious because it's a woman's voice and it's got a little bit of a Southern twang. And so when Marvin stops the truck, people go, where is she? Where is she? Because they see him. And so we started driving the streets. And at first people didn't know it was for them. They thought, you know, we were a distributor to different stores. And then when we started flyering and talking to people, they became very excited. And they get to come on the truck and actually pick out what they want.

MARTIN: Which is exactly what they would do if they were going into a store.

Ms. JOHANON: Exactly.

MARTIN: They would go and choose what they want. So, is it working as a business?

Ms. JOHANON: Well, it is. Unfortunately we have this season called winter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHANON: So it doesn't work well in the winter season. But it works well probably April through October, where we're profitable. And then what we've done during the winter months is we've developed stops at apartment buildings and senior centers and public health facilities, even a couple of schools, so that we can stop there and try to have people come out.

MARTIN: So Mr. Jenkins, this is - is it - I have to ask are the kids as happy to see you as they are to see the ice cream truck?

Mr. JENKINS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Because they - all they want is strawberries and grapes and peaches.

Ms. JOHANON: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's great. I know, Lisa, you had this vision for what it could be and why it was so important. But I wanted to ask Mr. Jenkins, what does it feel like to be delivering something that really can change people's lives? I mean, as I think is well-known, you know, diabetes, obesity are very big issues in many communities nationally, of course, but in black and Latino communities in particular. And so, Mr. Jenkins, I was just wondering, what does it - does it add a little something to the work to know that you're doing something so important?

Mr. JENKINS: Yes. It really makes me feel good for seniors, especially, to come down to the truck, or even if I pass them a flyer and I could tell them, they can always call the store and place their order. Then I can call them and tell them that I'm on my way, and I just come up to their doorbell and just ring their doorbell, and everything look good.

Ms. JOHANON: Something Marvin doesn't get to hear is the calls that come into the office or the store thanking us for having a produce truck. I tried to pass that information onto Marvin, but just so he doesn't get big-headed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHANON: ...not too often, you know. But...

MARTIN: Well, we'll keep it between us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHANON: Yeah. But he does a really good job with customer service and, you know, that's missing so often in urban centers, is where people are treated like people and being cared about. And that's just as important as delivering the produce, and Marvin does a great job of communicating that.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Jenkins, do you still have to be reminded to eat your vegetables?

Ms. JOHANON: Mm-hmm. I want to hear this.

Mr. JENKINS: No.

MARTIN: No.

Mr. JENKINS: No. Oh, I eat them everyday. You can believe that one. Sometimes I get tired of eating them, but I got to eat them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Lisa Johanon is executive director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp. It runs Peaches & Greens. It's a mobile produce truck that delivers throughout the community, and also is a brick-and-mortar store. And Marvin Jenkins is a driver for Peaches & Greens.

I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Ms. JOHANON: Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you.

Ms. JOHANON: We appreciate it.

MARTIN: And save me some rutabagas.

Ms. JOHANON: For real?

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