Mobile Grocery Store Looks for Permanent Home 

Green Machine backers want to open a food co-op downtown.

The backers of the Green Machine grocery bus, which peddles fresh produce in the city's food deserts, are looking to put down some roots.

On any given afternoon, the Green Machine grocery bus can be spotted moving through neighborhoods connected by Danny Thomas Boulevard, providing residents of the inner city affordable groceries in a converted MATA bus. If the bus' founders have their way, there may soon be a permanent grocery store coming to the Vance area.

Three years ago, when the city of Memphis invited members of the Vance Avenue neighborhood to participate in the planning process for neighborhood revitalization, something that kept coming up was the lack of grocery stores in the downtown area. So a group of volunteers and neighborhood activists elected to solve that problem by launching a mobile grocery store specializing in fresh fruits and vegetables.

click to enlarge The Green Machine mobile grocery may be expanding into a permanent store. - CHRIS SHAW
  • Chris Shaw
  • The Green Machine mobile grocery may be expanding into a permanent store.

University of Memphis professor Ken Reardon, who helps realize new ideas for the Green Machine through his city and regional planning courses at the U of M, said that the bus was the first step in setting up a permanent grocery store downtown.

"From the very beginning, there was a desire to do a store that would serve the downtown and Vance avenue area," Reardon said. "With the closing of the Easy Way store on North Main, there really isn't anything close to a full-service grocery downtown. The mobile Green Machine was an interim step to begin to address the critical need for fresh fruits and vegetables while we begin to plan for a permanent store."

Through his classes at the University of Memphis, Reardon conducted a market analysis to determine whether or not the Vance Avenue neighborhood, the South Main area, and the surrounding areas could sustain a permanent store. Using the most conservative estimations, Reardon found that the area could. Reardon then looked at different food co-operatives that operate in Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi, and found that all had a strong non-profit organization behind them.

Through Saint Patrick's Church, private funding, and The University of Memphis graduate program in city and regional planning, the Green Machine mobile project came to life.

"In the first year we've made more than 600 stops. We've attracted more than 15,000 customers, and we've sold more than $53,000 worth of fruits and vegetables," Reardon said. "In addition to that, 25,000 people have visited the bus at various city events, so there's a high level of awareness now. And in the last few months, eight other communities have approached us for information about how they can start a food bus. Those cities include Nashville, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and areas in Maryland and California."

When Reardon starts his next class at the University of Memphis in January, he hopes to establish a business plan for the permanent store and expand the sponsoring committee to keep the store running. A crowd-sourced fund-raising campaign was recently launched for the Green Machine Food Cooperative on ioby.org.

"Something interesting about all of this is that whenever you think you've come up with a great idea, someone has usually thought about it before, Reardon said. "W. E. B. DuBois argued to the black community that if you follow the path of white capitalism, a few people will get rich while the bulk of the poor will remain poor. He suggested having cooperative ownership of African-American businesses, and he started the People's Grocery Store of Memphis, Tennessee. He operated six stores that served 175,000 African Americans a year until the Great Depression."

Reardon hopes that the permanent food cooperative can take the space of the old Easy Way on North Main.

"It would be great to move into the Easy Way because it's already established as a grocery store, and people know that it's there. There are a lot of opportunities in the area, but the old Easy Way is attractive because all of the old equipment is still in the grocery store, which could save a lot of money."

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