GOLDSBORO — An idealistic partnership of academics, community leaders and local teens here is trying a novel solution to the national problem of poor nutrition in low-income neighborhoods: rickshaws.
Or rather, teenage food ambassadors on rickshaws, delivering farmers market produce to areas where places to buy fresh vegetables are scarce. Along the way, they spread information about healthy eating.
The Produce Pedlers bike delivery program made its first delivery rides Wednesday. The riders loaded up vegetables, peaches and melons at a small farmers market in Herman Park in Goldsboro in the morning, then rolled into low-income neighborhoods. They stopped at homes and shops to deliver pre-ordered vegetables, talked to potential customers sitting on front porches and were themselves questioned by others who wondered aloud what the heck they were up to on those strange machines.
The answer, basically, was that they were fighting food deserts areas where fresh vegetables and other healthy foods are scarce because of a lack of supermarkets or are too expensive because there are only small stores.
Food deserts have been getting increased attention in recent years from advocates for the poor, public health experts and the federal government. Poor nutrition creates a massive set of public health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The rickshaw project is being paid for by a two-year grant of about $50,000 from a U.S. Department of Agriculture fund aimed at boosting farmers markets.
It not only strikes a blow for nutrition, but also against unemployment among youth, all while expanding the marketing reach of local farmers, said Shorlette Ammons, who works for a Goldsboro-based partnership between N.C. A&T University, N.C. State University and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Her organization, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, spearheaded the Pedler project.
Ammons said organizers hope the program will win over enough customers and farmers that it becomes self-sustaining.
Were mostly a farming community and rural, so there is this tradition for us, and were excited about getting young people back to that tradition, she said. And theyre excited about doing something new and innovative and hoping that they will be opening doors for other young people down the road.
The vendors at the farmers market, who have been watching for weeks as the program tuned up the rickshaws, said they were thrilled so see the deliveries begin and that they hoped the plan works.
Its not just us. It gives those kids a good opportunity and people who cant get out much a way to get good food, said Frank Aanenson, who had provided hand-sized golden Korean melons for the days run. It just expands the horizons for everybody.
The first deliveries were done with two teams, each with one rickshaw and one standard bicycle. The regular bikes essentially carry a spare motor: another rider. Theyll swap back and forth, because pedaling a heavily loaded rickshaw is real work.
At a barbershop on the edge of one of the citys poorest neighborhoods, owner Derrick Manley grinned as his order of corn, shelled peas, tomatoes and hot peppers arrived. Then he stepped out to the parking lot, where the rickshaws were attracting attention.
The rickshaws one red, one green made the teens instant celebrities and started conversations that the kids turned into sales pitches. The food wasnt expensive no more than what the farmers charged at the market and sales came easy.
Ohhhh, look at that corn! said Natasha Ferguson as she walked up to a rickshaw pedaled by Demarcus Williamson. She handed over $10 and walked away with 30 ears, pre-shucked. All my family cooks, and theyre gonna love this.
A couple of blocks away, the other rickshaw crew, Michael Morgan and Kevin Taylor, both 17, chatted up a couple of men walking along the sidewalk after catching one mans eye and introducing themselves. They werent going much faster than the pedestrians, and it was natural that they started talking. One man bought a pair of peaches.
So far, the Pedler program has hired four local teen delivery riders and a manager, Corey Montgomery, and plans to add four more riders. The teens are paid to pedal and also learn about managing famers markets.
On Wednesday, Montgomery followed the crews around, meeting with them at pre-planned spots to go over how sales were going and to fine-tune their record-keeping skills. They described their encounters, and he coached them on sales technique and on spreading the word about the program and the importance of healthy food.
People are just going to stop you and ask, and theyre going to do it a lot, so just be ready for that, he said.
Montgomery said that in about a month the rickshaws will be tricked out with wireless machines that allow the teens to accept Food Stamp payments.
Montgomery said they will continue to sell cool weather crops for the farmers after the market shuts down for the season in October, giving them a way to sell their crops year round. And as the teens pedaled their routes Wednesday, he had them hand out business cards for farmers and order forms and explain that people could call Pedlers to pre-order any day of the week or call the farmers directly.
Were going to work hand-in-hand with these farmers and do whatever we can to help them get their produce out in these neighborhoods, Montgomery said.
Experts say that the battle against poor nutrition in low-income areas is a tricky one.
One approach has been doing more to encourage small stores which are common in poor neighborhoods but have limited selection and can charge much more than supermarkets to offer more healthy food at reasonable prices. The state Division of Public Health last year launched a pilot program in Pitt County that works with convenience store owners to increase the amount of healthy, affordable foods and beverages they stock.
So-called food deserts have become a hot topic among social justice advocates, who say the dearth of places to get nutritious, affordable food condemns locals to buying cheaper, unhealthy alternatives.
The Produce Pedlers hope their bike idea will turn into a national model, Ammons said. And it might: the under secretary of the USDAs Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services programs traveled to Goldsboro to highlight the program in May.
Defining the desert
Food deserts are real, but the phrase is so evocative that researchers who have studied the problem say it can oversimplify the way people think about it.
Its more complicated than just lack of access to healthy food, said Barry Popkin, a professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He led an Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Science committee on the public health impact of food deserts, and was lead author on a 15-year study in four cities around the country that found having access to supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods doesnt necessarily lead to healthier eating habits.
Ensuring a proper supply of healthy food is important, Popkin said, but so are other factors such as keeping costs down for healthy items so they are competitive with processed snack foods and other unhealthy foods. Also, it can be hard to overcome the vast sums spent on marketing junk food.
You dont see too many advertisements for carrots, he said. You see plenty of ads for potato chips and fast food.
The rickshaws, he said, sound similar to fresh produce carts that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved in 2008 to fight the problem there. Those have been successful in some places, less so in others.
And while the idea of delivery rickshaws might seem more suited to hipster cities such as Portland, Ore., no one would pooh-pooh the idea of deploying them in Wayne County. The novelty could give a boost to marketing the idea of healthy food, and the rickshaws are obviously cheaper than buying and running delivery trucks.
The scheme may not be perfect, but its surely worth trying, Popkin said.
I think its a great idea, and I hope they stick with it until they figure out what it takes to make it work, he said. Maybe its something that will spread. Well see.