Mobile Food Market to visit Halifax communities

A new kind of city bus could soon be making stops in six communities in the Halifax Regional Municipality, delivering a bounty of nutritious food.  

The plan is for a Mobile Food Market, loaded with fruits and vegetables, to visit each community every other week during a 21-week pilot, offering residents the chance to purchase healthy foods at low prices. The project is expected to begin next Spring.

One of these stops will be East Preston, a predominantly African-Nova Scotian community east of Halifax.  Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, an East Preston community leader, professor of social work at Dalhousie University, and chair of the Health and Wellness Ministry at the East Preston United Baptist Church, attended the initial community meeting about the Mobile Food Market and immediately got on board. 

“From the moment I heard about the project, I was excited,” she says. “The Mobile Food Market will make a difference in people being able to make healthy food choices – something which is critical for overall health and well-being.”

A Food Counts report released earlier this year by the Halifax Food Policy Alliance with support from Public Health (Central Zone) notes that 20 percent of Haligonians experience food insecurity, which means that they can’t afford healthy or culturally appropriate food, they can’t easily access it, or both.  The report ranked Halifax highest in food insecurity among the 33 largest Canadian cities and also noted a 28 per cent increase in food bank use by city residents in the past year.

In addition to the high cost of eating healthy, people living in neighbourhoods like East Preston have few or any retail food options within walking distance and have poor access to public transit.

“Food insecurity is pervasive in our city and we need to address it if we are going to create healthier communities,” says Medical Officer of Health Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed.  She explains that cost is only one of the barriers to healthy eating. Availability and accessibility are also concerns. “We tell people all the time that a healthy diet is critical – but what are they to do if the foods are not readily available.  The Mobile Food Market aims to make these foods more affordable and accessible to people who need them the most.”  

The Mobile Food Market will begin as a 21-week pilot.  In addition to East Preston it will make stops in Spryfield, Fairview, North Preston, far north-end Halifax, and Dartmouth North.

“The six communities were chosen because they tend to be further away from grocery stores and have a higher proportion of seniors, immigrants, single parents, and low-income families,” explains Ali Shaver, Healthy Built Environment Co-ordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.  She adds that the project has been working closely with community stakeholders to ensure that people are receptive to the project and that it will meet their needs.

The development of the Mobile Food Market is being led by the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Public Health (Central Zone), the Ecology Action Centre and the Mayor’s Office, and has been  modeled after similar projects in Ottawa and Toronto which have had great success. In Ottawa, for example, the Mobile Food Market saw approximately 100 customers on each market day.

Experience from other municipalities points to price and convenience as the most important factors for customers to use the service.  Thanks to Halifax Regional Council which recently voted to donate a bus and driver for the duration of the pilot, the Mobile Food Market plans to visit each community directly.  This will make it as easy as possible for all residents, including those who don’t have cars, to access the food.  

“When people think about health care, they often think about hospitals,” says Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. “But really, health care is about everything. Bringing fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables to parts of the city that otherwise don’t have access is a big part of building healthy communities.”

The Mobile Food Market will start with fruits and vegetables although could expand to other goods in time.  The aim is to purchase the food at cost and resell it at prices competitive with discount grocery stores.

“We will make it a priority to source locally whenever possible but there are other factors we’re considering such as price that will be important in determining how we’re going to procure the food,” says Aimee Carson, Community Food Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre.  To this end, project planners are working to secure an agreement with retail grocery stores. She adds that providing culturally appropriate choices will be another food priority.

Ali Shaver says that the many examples of successful mobile food markets in other cities is helpful in setting one up for Halifax.  “Other municipalities have been experimenting with mobile markets for many years and colleagues in other cities have been very generous in sharing lessons learned, resources and tips. That’s given us the confidence to move forward with this project.”

Longer-term, the Mobile Food Market will need sustainable funding. The anticipated success of the pilot will certainly help with that funding case says Shaver.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard says that her community of East Preston is busily making plans for the Mobile Food Market’s visits.  “We intend to make the most of this! For every day the bus comes, we will schedule “short & snappy” information sessions organized by community organizations around the theme of health and well-being.  We will ensure that the bus has familiar staples as well as some new foods people might not have tried, and we’ll encourage people to try some of these new foods by providing recipes for how to prepare them.”

She acknowledges that getting people to use the bus may be an uphill climb at first, but word of mouth and “neighbours  bringing neighbours  to the bus” will drive use over time.  “We have access to a great opportunity here.  We can be putting healthier options in our kids’ lunch bags, even on a budget.”