Betty Isom gave the simmering yellow squash a few slow stirs. "The fried food is not good for you,” she announces, inhaling the steam from her pot. “Not good.”
Fried food is ubiquitous in Isom's home of South Memphis. The city is famous for its barbecue and fried chicken. In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, around 34 percent of adults are obese, according to the 2013 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps report. And 12 percent are also diabetic, reports the Tennessee Department of Health.
Eating healthy can be tough for many of the poor, elderly residents in Isom's community. The neighborhood is located in a food desert, where large grocery stores are at least a few miles away. Many residents don't have their cars, so they rely on friends, family and the city bus to get any fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We used to have a store,” said 60-year-old Isom, who struggles with high blood pressure. “We used to go and buy our vegetables and other items that we really need in the neighborhood... We don’t have one now since it closed.”
Many people now rely on small neighborhood convenience stores, where they can buy bread, canned food, chips and cookies. But nothing that you could call fresh. Isom is hoping to change that.
On the road to healthy eating
A few years ago, researchers from the University of Memphis started working on a neighborhood-planning project with other community leaders, including Isom and the deacon from Memphis’ Saint Patrick’s Church. It was immediately evident that access to fresh food was a top priority for community members, said Dr. Ken Reardon, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.
But large grocery chains were not interested in moving into the neighborhood. In fact, he said, a representative from one of the major grocery chains told him that if he proposed the idea seriously to his management team, "they would laugh me out of the board room."
“It became clear that we couldn’t depend upon existing primary grocery leaders in our area to make a store happen,” Reardon said.
Then the group learned about a mobile food bus in Chicago called Fresh Moves, which drove through different neighborhoods in the city delivering fresh produce. Reardon and a group of community leaders decided to try something similar in Memphis.
“We put together a benchmark report on what had been the ingredients to the success of Fresh Moves, and we went to have a preliminary discussion… [with] the Memphis Area Transit Agency,” Reardon said.
The transit agency rents the group a bus for $1 a year, said Eugene Champion, the deacon at Saint Patrick’s Church. After raising approximately $150,000 for operating and start-up costs, they transformed it into the Green Machine.
Volunteers covered the exterior of the bus with bright green paint and huge images of fruits and vegetables. Along the sides, they painted the words “Green Machine.” Inside, they stocked the shelves with a sundry selection of healthy goods including rutabagas, greens, watermelons, plums and oranges.
“The inside of it looked just like a grocery store – with the shelves when you first walk in – and the cash register… and scales,” Champion said.
The Green Machine gets its stock from David Carter, whose family owns Easy Way, a Memphis produce business. Carter supplies the fruits and vegetables to the bus for a $1-a-case mark-up.
“We want to be part of making people change their diets and eat healthier,” Carter said.
The Green Machine launched in the summer of 2013 after two years of planning. During the first few weeks of service, nearly 2,000 people boarded the bus.
Every week, the bus makes 18 stops through the city, including a complex for the disabled and a residence for the elderly. Reardon said he hopes the Green Machine project eventually leads to a more permanent market in the neighborhood.
“I would love to say that we did the Green Machine for one, two or three years and then moved on to establish the cooperative market model,” he said. “I expect the next five to 10 years that we’re going to still be in the mobile food business.”
Reardon said that other supporters are considering plans to help expand the project by adding more buses and routes. For now, South Memphis residents such as Isom board the bus and purchases fresh vegetables whenever she can. Yellow squash is one of her favorite items to cook.
“We can learn how to eat healthy,” she said. “A lot of people have been sick all the time, and we got to learn how to eat the right kind of food to keep us alive.”
Watch Lori Jane Gliha's full story this evening on America Tonight, and also catch a special program, "Hunger in America," airing Wednesday, Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.