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Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

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Research report

Overcoming challenges to effectiveness of mobile markets in US

food deserts
Lydia Zepeda a,*, Anna Reznickova b, Luanne Lohr c

Department of Consumer Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1300 Linden Dr, Room 4104 2, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA
Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 550 North Park Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA
US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, Transportation and Marketing Program, 1400 Independence Ave., SW Room 4545,
Washington, DC 20025, USA




Article history:
Received 18 December 2013
Received in revised form 14 March 2014
Accepted 25 March 2014
Available online 13 April 2014
Food access
Fruits and vegetables
Low-income households
Public health


The purpose of this research is to investigate whether mobile food markets may be effective in facilitating healthy food choices in food deserts. We investigate who does and does not use mobile food markets
and why, and whether mobile markets have the potential to alter attitudes and food choices, and if so,
how? We use a focus group study at four sites in the US to ask groups of mobile market shoppers and
non-shoppers about their shopping, cooking, and eating attitudes and behaviors. We nd that mobile
market shoppers eat signicantly more servings of fruits and vegetables, however, both shoppers and
non-shoppers perceive fruits and vegetables as luxury items, and both groups lack knowledge about what
is a serving and what is the recommended number of servings per day. Both groups identied the following needs for mobile markets to be more successful: increased awareness and advertising; affordability;
improved convenience by offering more stops and hours, as well as greater variety of items for one-stop
shopping; emphasis on value and service; and building trust within communities.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

We know more about nutrition than at any time in history
(Tillotson, 2004), yet more than half of US adults are overweight
(Flegal, Carroll, Ogden, & Curtin, 2010) and preventable nutritionrelated diseases (heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes) are implicated in over one-third of all deaths in the US (Xu, Kochanek,
Murphy, & Tejada-Vera, 2010). As a result, the US medical costs for
obesity alone in 2008 were US$147 billion (Finkelstein, Trogdon,
Cohen, & Dietz, 2009).
Economic theory might point to low prices of unhealthy foods
as an explanation of overeating. US consumers spend less than 8%
of household expenditures on food at home (US Bureau of Labor
Statistics, 2011), the lowest percentage of any country, at any time
in history. However, a review of research on the inuence of scal
policies on eating behavior shows that the empirical evidence is weak
and of low quality (Thow, Jan, Leederc, & Swinburn, 2010). Further,
experimental data indicates fat taxes have little impact on eating
behavior, while subsidies of healthy foods are costly; a 1% subsidy
on fruits and vegetable would cost the US$1.3 million per life saved
(Cash & Lacanilao, 2007).

* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: lzepeda@wisc.edu (L. Zepeda).
0195-6663/ 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Who is most affected by nutrition-related illness in the US offers

clues about their causes; in a study on low-income shoppers, obesity
and chronic disease are associated with low fruit and vegetable consumption (Leone et al., 2012). Furthermore, in the US, AfricanAmericans and Hispanics are more likely than Whites to be obese,
and poverty signicantly increases the likelihood of all racial and
ethnic categories of women to be obese (Ogden, Lamb, Carroll, &
Flegal, 2010). Poverty is concentrated in both urban and some (not
all) rural areas of the US (US Census Bureau, 2013b). Story, Kaphingst,
Robinson-OBrien, and Glanz (2008) and Mead (2008) point to the
urban built environment as affecting access to fresh foods, while
Gantner, Olson, Frongillo, and Wells (2011) identify similar problems of access to healthy foods in rural areas of the US. Indeed, the
US Department of Agriculture denes a food desert as communities where the poverty rate is greater than 20% and at least onethird of the inhabitants live at least one mile from a grocery story
(10 miles in rural communities).
However, research on food deserts has yielded mixed results regarding the links between food access, or the built environment, and
health outcomes (Caspi, Sorensen, Subramanian, & Kawachi, 2012;
Feng, Glass, Curreiro, Stewart, & Schwartz, 2010; Walker, Keane, &
Burke, 2010). In part, this may be due to the fact that different researchers dene food desert differently, often focusing on distance to grocery stores unlike the US Department of Agriculture,
which incorporates poverty as well. For example, An and Sturm
(2012) did not nd a strong correlation between childrens food

L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

environment, dened as density of fast food and stores within 0.5

miles of their home or school, and diet of children in California. Caspi
et al. (2012) reviewed 38 studies on food environment, concluding
that store distance does not appear to be correlated with dietary
choices. Feng et al. (2010) review 63 papers and conclude that there
is not strong evidence that the built environment is linked to obesity
in the US. In a review of 31 papers on food deserts in the US, Walker
et al. (2010) nd mixed results about the linkage between food access
and food choices, concluding that income is often the limiting factor;
this points to the importance of including poverty in the denition of a food desert. Caspi et al. (2012) and Feng et al. (2010) emphasize that the variety of methodologies and measurements are
problematic in making comparisons between studies, while
Cummins and Macintyre (2002) point to problems with the research design of many food desert studies, and in particular, the assumption of causality when variables are merely correlated.
Some researchers also contest the relationship between poverty
and food. Looking at the UK, Wrigley (2002) found mixed results
about food access in poor neighborhoods. In the US, Widener, Farber,
Neutens, and Horner (2013) use commuting data in Cincinnati to
show that there is greater food access if one takes into account commuting behavior rather than merely using the location of ones residence. Another US study found a link between race and food access;
Powell, Slater, Mirtcheva, Bao, and Chaloupka (2007) found predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods had fewer
chain supermarkets than White neighborhoods even when they controlled for income.
Despite the contested research ndings, there is often an assumption, particularly among policy makers, that improving food
access in food deserts will yield better health outcomes (Cummins
& Macintyre, 2002; Wrigley, 2002). As a result, several nonprot organizations in the US are trying to mitigate the issue of food access
by creating mobile food markets in low income, low food access communities (Sifferlin, 2012). Mobile markets in the form of buses, trucks,
or semi-trailers outtted with refrigeration, cash registers, credit and
electronic transfers retailing equipment are a lower cost alternative to establishing brick-and-mortar stores in these communities.
In fact, one of the earliest mobile markets, Peoples Grocerys mobile
market in Oakland, California, was founded due to lack of funding
for a brick-and-mortar store in 2003. Later a brick-and-mortar store
opened in the area originally served by a mobile market (Community
Commons, 2012). However, since mobile markets are a recent phenomenon, studies about them are scarce. We do not know whether
mobile markets are effective in delivering fresh produce to food
deserts. Furthermore, while mobile markets appear to be a stopgap
measure to improve access to healthy foods, the nonprots operating mobile markets have a variety of missions. Some explicitly have
long-term goals, such as: creating demand for local agricultural products, providing nutrition education programs, or promoting food
justice (e.g. Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture,
2014; Gorge Grown Food Network, 2014), implying that for them
mobile markets are part of a long-term strategy.
Studies of mobile markets are not only limited, they also have
mixed results. Widener, Metcalf, and Bar-Yam (2012, 2013) show that
while both brick-and-mortar stores and mobile markets lead to increases in fruit and vegetable consumption, mobile markets have
the advantage of covering a larger area. While this addresses accessibility, affordability still remains a problem. This might explain
the contradictory ndings about mobile markets and fruit and vegetable consumption. Tester, Yen, and Laraia (2012) nd that the presence of a mobile fruit vendor increased childrens consumption of
produce and reduced their consumption of unhealthy snacks over
a 14-day study. However, Philadelphia Greensgrow Project (2012)
nds only modest increases in farms sales and use of mobile markets
by targeted communities. Obstacles in reaching their intended customers are related to timing, lack of variety, and lack of advertis-


ing. Abusabha, Namjoshi, and Klen (2011) show a modest increase

in vegetable consumption by seniors (from 2.0 to 2.6 servings per
day, mostly in terms of potatoes); however, consumption of fruit
was unaffected. Measuring the effect of mobile markets on personal health, Lewis and Zollinger (2012) show that despite the reported modest increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among
regular mobile markets shoppers, personal health (dened in terms
of obesity, blood pressure, and blood sugar) remained unaffected
over the six-month study period. However, participants perceived
their health to have improved. In addition, the authors discuss other
benets of mobile markets, specically, that they facilitate community gathering and provide information and tools to improve
eating habits.
Despite a lack of information and supportive research ndings,
mobile markets continue to spring up around the US as a strategy
to provide healthy food choices in food deserts (The National Mobile
Market, 2013) with some of them receiving funds from federal agencies. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) funded two mobile markets through
cooperative agreements in 2011 to provide urban and rural food
deserts with access to fresh, healthy food (US Department of
Agriculture, 2012). Through the Farmers Market Promotion Program,
USDA AMS also funded competitive grants to 14 mobile market projects in 2012, 13 in 2011, and 4 others since 2008 (Agricultural
Marketing Service, 2013).
Therefore, the goal of this study is to investigate whether mobile
food markets are effective in facilitating healthy food choices in their
communities. The objectives of the research are to: (1) understand who does and who does not use mobile markets and why, and
(2) investigate whether mobile produce markets have the potential to alter attitudes and food choices, and if so, how.
We build on research that examines access to food as one of the
key contextual factors impeding healthy food choices. Mead (2008)
and Block, Chavez, Allen, and Ramirez (2012) found that low food
access or food deserts have made access to healthy foods dicult and costly. Since poverty is part of the USDS denition of food
desert (US Department of Agriculture, 2014) increasing access implies
increasing affordability as well. Several theories (Guagnano, Stern,
& Dietz, 1995; Kirscht, 1974; Zepeda & Deal, 2009) can explain why
mobile markets may be effective in facilitating fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. They stress the importance of context, or ones
environment, including price, in facilitating behaviors. Kirschts (1974)
Health Belief Model suggests that perceived barriers, linked to sociocultural factors, such as convenience, cost, or lack of knowledge, are powerful constraints that prevent one from adopting a
behavior. Lack of access in food deserts presents a constraint to eating
healthy foods; mobile markets make healthy foods accessible and
therefore should facilitate healthy food choices. Similarly, the
Attitude-Behavior-Context (ABC) model (Guagnano et al., 1995) states
that ones attitude corresponds to ones behavior when ones environment is supportive of a behavior. ABC theory would predict that
food deserts are not supportive to healthy eating behaviors because
they make access to healthy foods dicult and that mobile markets
can support healthy eating behaviors by improving healthy food
access. Zepeda and Deals (2009) Alphabet Theory is built on the
two previous models. They postulate that knowledge, information
seeking, and habits also inuence attitudes and context, which in
turn determine behavior.
We address our research questions using a focus group study.
Questions for this study were formulated from the Health Belief
Model, ABC theory and Alphabet Theory. The focus group questions elicit knowledge about recommended fresh produce consumption, perceptions of the mobile market, affordability, behavior
with respect to purchase of fresh produce at the market or elsewhere, reasons for using or not using the mobile market, and barriers to purchase, storage, and preparation of fresh produce.


L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

Participants responses allowed us to propose a set of recommendations to make mobile markets more successful.
Materials and methods
The focus group study was conducted at four sites selected by
USDA AMS. The four sites reect urban and rural communities with
different ethnic compositions and different missions of the nonprots
operating mobile markets. The mobile markets had to have operated for at least one year at the site. Eight focus groups were conducted for the study: two focus groups of approximately ten
participants each, at each site. One group (shoppers) consisted of
participants who shopped at the local mobile market and another
(non-shoppers) of participants who lived in the area served by the
mobile market, but did not shop there. The sites and dates of the
focus groups were: Stevenson, WA (September 2012); Chicago, IL
(October 2012); Madison, WI (April 2013); and Washington, DC (July
2013). A total of 82 people participated in the focus groups. The focus
groups were facilitated by two of the authors and observed by staff
from USDA AMS.
Focus groups are an ideal method to elicit perceptions (Kreuger,
1994). Participants are asked open-ended questions to encourage
expression of their views, rather than limit answers to xed responses, as with a questionnaire. Focus groups also permit one to
obtain a larger number of participants than interviews would, and
allow the participants to interact with each other. Groups are guided
in discussion by a facilitator to ensure that all participants are able
to provide their views. By analyzing the discussion for common
themes, consensus views, and points of disagreement, the researcher is able to identify views on topics that may be too subtle
for survey questionnaires to pick up. The degree of (dis)agreement and forcefulness of views adds richness to the response set.
Focus groups are a standard tool used in market research and are
frequently used to examine food choices (Costa, Zepeda, & Sirieix,
2011; Philadelphia Greensgrow Project, 2012; Russell & Zepeda, 2008;
Zepeda, Reznickova, & Russell, 2013).
The study design was reviewed and approved by the human subjects Internal Review Board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Teleconferences between the USDA AMS program ocers, the researchers, and representatives of each mobile market facilitated introductions, information about the project, its purpose, contact
information, and request of permission to conduct research at each
site. Each mobile market manager provided a site permission letter
to indicate their willingness to participate in the study.
With the assistance of the mobile market managers, the researchers identied a suitable venue and time for the focus groups.
To facilitate easy access for all participants, the venues were close
to a mobile market stop. The researchers recruited participants beginning at least two weeks prior to the designated time of the focus
groups using posters, yers and/or ads describing the research. Flyers
to recruit shoppers were also distributed by the mobile market staff,
while posters and yers to recruit non-shoppers were placed in
public places (e.g. caf, community center, local newspaper). Onsite, in-person recruiting and snowball recruiting were used when
not enough participants signed up in advance. In recruitment materials, the participants were offered $50 as an incentive to participate. Potential participants contacted the researchers to screen for
age (at least 18 years of age) and for being a mobile market shopper
or non-shopper. Only one participant, in Stevenson, WA, the most
auent site, listed their e-mail as their contact information, the rest
listed telephone numbers. Approximately 12 participants were recruited for each focus group to allow for attrition; the target for each
group was 10. The total number of participants in the study was 82:
45 shoppers and 37 non-shoppers.
Each focus group was scheduled for two hours. The actual duration ranged from 64 minutes to 117 minutes with an average of

87 minutes. If the focus group was scheduled around a mealtime,

participants were provided with refreshments. Prior to commencing, the researchers reviewed the approved informed consent script,
asked for oral consent and provided the participants with a written
copy for their records. Participants then lled out a short survey on
demographic characteristics and food behaviors (see Appendix 1).
The focus group discussion consisted of open-ended questions
(Table 1) sequenced to build from general views to specic attitudes and behaviors, while examining contextual factors, habits, and
knowledge. The participants answered in round-robin format and
could choose not to respond. The facilitator encouraged each respondent to comment, allowing for group discussion and expression of differing opinions. Follow-up or probing questions we asked
for clarication. In one focus group, two participants spoke only
Spanish; the researcher was able to accommodate them by translating the questions into Spanish.
Each focus group was recorded on an audio recorder. While one
of the authors was facilitating the focus group, another author recorded observations and took notes to help with transcription and
annotation of the transcripts. The focus group recordings were transcribed by a professional service, except for the discussion in Spanish,
which was transcribed and translated by the focus group facilitator. The transcripts were analyzed and coded by the author assisting with the focus group; the goal was to summarize responses and
investigate further research questions. The questionnaire responses characterized the household and demographic attributes
of the respondents, as well as their eating habits, while theme codes
from the transcripts were used to compare the two groups perceptions about the mobile markets and how they could be improved to attract more consumers. Quotes were selected to illustrate
ndings and to represent the different focus groups and participants views. The quotes include state abbreviations and respondent number to demonstrate that the quotes represent a diversity
of respondents.
Site characteristics
Table 2 summarizes the self-reported characteristics of the focus
group participants and characteristics of the four sites (Chicago, IL;
Washington, DC; Madison, WI; and Stevenson, WA) (US Census
Bureau, 2013a, 2013b). We found no statistical difference at p = 5%
between shoppers and non-shoppers in the study in terms of gender,
race, or usage of a federal food assistance program for low-income
households (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).
This implies that the shoppers and non-shoppers recruited at each
site are similar.
Stevenson, WA is a rural, mostly White (94%) community. The
poverty rate is relatively low (15%). However, there is a large range
in household income; the median household income is somewhat
low ($30,912), yet over 25% of households earned more than
$100,000 annually (US Census Bureau, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c). This
disparity was reected in our participants; the shoppers were mostly
auent, judging from their habit to shop in specialty food stores,
while non-shoppers were mostly low-income, preferring cheaper
national chain grocery stores. Gorge Grown Mobile Market serves
as an anchor vendor for farmers markets in rural communities along
the Columbia River in Washington state and Oregon; the mobile
market manager views its role as complementary to other farmers,
therefore the mobile market offers local produce that no one else
does at the markets. Since there are few vendors, when asked about
the mobile market, the participants in Stevenson did not distinguish the mobile market from the farmers market. Therefore, their
focus group responses reect their attitudes to the farmers market
as a whole.

L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867


Table 1
Focus group questions.
All participants:
1. Please tell me about a typical dinner in your household. What foods do you eat? Who is at the meal?
2. Please tell me what is your goal for meal preparation?
3. Please tell me where do you get the food for your household?
4. Please tell me what fresh vegetables and fruits do you eat in your household? Where do you get them? Do you think your household eats enough fresh vegetables
and fruits? Why or why not?
For shoppers:
5. Please tell me how you heard about (insert name) mobile market? When did you start shopping there and why?
6. Please tell me how often you shop at (insert name) mobile market, what do you buy, and why? Can you get these things at other places you get food? Are these
foods you bought before you started shopping at (insert name) mobile market?
7. Have your meals or the foods you eat changed since you started shopping at (insert name) mobile market? If so, how and why?
8. Have you changed the foods you select at other places (stores, restaurants, etc) since you started coming to the (insert name) mobile market? If so why? (If the
mobile market is season: Have you changed the foods you select when the mobile market is not open?)
9. Are there foods you wish the (insert name) mobile market had but does not? If so, what? Are there foods the (insert name) mobile market has that you do not
want? If so what?
10. What would you change about the (insert name) mobile market if you could? Why?
11. Please tell me what you think the reputation is of (insert name) mobile market and the people who work there?
12. Please tell me why you think more people dont use (insert name) mobile market?
13. What do you think would encourage more people to use (insert name) mobile market?
14. What do think would encourage more people to eat more vegetables and fruits?
For non-shoppers:
5. Please tell me if you have heard of (insert name) mobile market. If so, how did you hear about it?
6. Please tell me what you think the reputation is of (insert name) mobile market and the people who work there?
7. (Insert name) mobile market sells fresh produce in your community (insert place) on (insert day and time) and accepts cash and SNAP cards. Would the location and
time be convenient for you? Why or why not?
8. Would you be interested in having more fresh produce available for your family? Why or why not?
9. Please tell me why you think more people dont use (insert name) mobile market?
10. What do you think would encourage more people to use (insert name) mobile market?
11. What do think would encourage more people to eat more vegetables and fruits?

As opposed to the other sites, all the Stevenson, WA participants knew about the farmers market. Given the size of the town,
it would be hard to miss on Saturday mornings. However, access is
not the only obstacle to fruit and vegetable consumption. Consistent with research on perceptions of local and organic agriculture
as a status symbol (Costa et al., 2011), the Stevenson farmers market
was perceived as exclusive and expensive by both groups. While
shoppers remained enthusiastic about the market despite the
expense and talked about supporting local farmers, non-shoppers
did not feel welcome. Non-shoppers perceptions of the site as uninviting and targeting tourists or people with money, carried over
to how they viewed the produce; they saw it as lacking variety or
of low quality. This nding is in line with Alphabet Theory (Zepeda
& Deal, 2009), which predicts that individuals of different sociocultural characteristics may judge the same context differently. Compared to the other sites, where awareness of the mobile market is

needed to attract people, the perception of elitism at the Stevenson site is harder to overcome, implying the need to create inclusiveness and community.
Fresh Moves in Chicago, IL is an organization that promotes access
to healthy conventional foods and education programs to mostly
African-American communities. The study site neighborhood is 86%
African-American with a high poverty rate (40%) and a median
household income of $15,920 (US Census Bureau, 2013a, 2013b).
Notably, the staff of the mobile market was from the community
and included high-school interns. This facilitated a better connection by the mobile market to the local community.
Shoppers and non-shoppers were similar on all surveyed variables with the exception of distance to grocery stores and Fresh
Moves stops; while non-shoppers lived closer to grocery stores than
to Fresh Moves (9.3 vs. 18.3 minutes away), shoppers lived closer
to Fresh Moves stops (1.2 minutes away vs. 13.1 minutes away). For

Table 2
Site and participant characteristics for focus groups of shoppers and non-shoppers at mobile markets.

Gorge Grown (Stevenson, WA)

Fresh Moves (Chicago, IL)

Freshmobile (Madison, WI)

Arcadia (Washington, DC)

Community Typea
Ethnicity Proleb

Rural town
94% White

86% African-American

97% African-American

Poverty Ratec
Median Household Incomeb



Small city
19% African-American
28% Hispanic

% Female
% White
% African-American
% Hispanic
% American Indian
% SNAP usersd


















Rural town has population of less than 2,500 (US Department of Agriculture, 2013a).
US Census Bureau (2013a).
US Census Bureau (2013b).
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; it provides benets to purchase food to eligible low income people (US Department of Agriculture, 2013b).


L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

Table 3
Responses of shoppers and non-shoppers to pre-focus group questionnaire.

Shoppers (n = 46)

Non-shoppers (n = 36)

Grocery shopping trips in the past two weeks

Distance from grocery store
Distance from mobile market
How many servings of fruit and vegetables did you have yesterday?
How many adults live in your household?
How many children live in your household?

3.0 times
4.4 miles
1.9 miles
3.5 servings

2.4 times
4.5 miles
5.9 miles
2.0 servings

Do you like to cook?

Do you use a SNAP card?

Are you employed?
Are you a student?
Does anyone in your household suffer from overweight, obesity, type II diabetes,
heart disease, stroke, or food allergies?





15% sometimes


39% sometimes




The question Do you like to cook? offered three responses yes, sometimes, no. The percentages reported sum to 100% for each group.

most participants, the mobile market was the most convenient option
to provide access to produce, since it stopped on their block. This
was particularly important for the seniors who talked about their
diculties shopping and carrying groceries, especially in winter.
While there were no senior participants in the non-shopper group,
these participants recognized and discussed the role of the mobile
market in helping senior citizens access food. While mobile markets
provided food access, they did not address concerns about having
enough to eat, particularly for participants with children. Participants also highlighted a need to raise awareness about the relationship between diet and health, to offer staples, and to provide
recipes that include fresh produce. Both shoppers and non-shoppers
were concerned about the lack of awareness of the mobile market
in their community; therefore, raising awareness is the rst step in
making mobile markets more successful.
While Madison, WI is an auent small city with a median household income of $57,124 (City of Madison, 2012), the communities
served by Freshmobile mobile market are designated by the USDA
as food deserts and have much larger minority communities than
other neighborhoods in Madison. The study site is 19% AfricanAmerican and 28% Hispanic, with a 19% poverty rate and median
household income of $32,000 (US Census Bureau, 2013a, 2013b), well
below the city median income. Freshmobile was founded by a forprot grocery store owner to serve food deserts in a town otherwise known for its food culture. The grocery store infrastructure
proved to be benecial for smooth running of the mobile market;
the founder was able to provide the expertise, skills, and staff to
manage food ordering and bookkeeping.
Shoppers and non-shoppers in Madison were similar in their demographics and other variables; however, they differed in what they
thought about when planning a meal. The majority of shoppers were
concerned about health; vegetables were prominent when preparing meals, while non-shoppers organized their meals around meat.
Both shoppers and non-shoppers appreciated the convenience of
the market but were concerned about quality and affordability of
the produce and service. Again, physical access is clearly not the only
barrier: perceptions of cost and value are others. All the nonshoppers liked the idea of Freshmobile; however, many of them had
not heard about it and wanted encouragement in the form of yers
and word-of-mouth recommendations.
Arcadia Mobile Market in Washington, DC is part of a nonprot
organization that promotes an equitable and sustainable local food
system. The organization operates a small farm in Alexandria, VA
to supply its mobile market and also to provide hands-on experience as part of its youth education programs. The communities
served by the mobile market are largely African-American and poor;

the study site is 97% African-American with a 38% poverty rate and
a median household income of $50,188 (US Census Bureau, 2013a,
2013b). While the median income is the highest of the four sites,
it is below the Washington, DC median household income of $62,000
and the poverty rate is well above the DC average of 18% (US Census
Bureau, 2013d).
Participants for the study were recruited from an affordable
housing complex for seniors and families, one of Arcadias stops. All
the participants were seniors, with the exception of two nonshoppers. Both groups were enthusiastic about the market; the shoppers loved the products offered and the experience of shopping at
the brightly colored bus. When told about the market, the nonshoppers liked the idea and all of them said they wanted to shop
there. However, cost and awareness were the biggest obstacles. Participants indicated that at the end of the month when they ran out
of money, they could no longer afford to buy fresh produce. Most
participants also forgot when the bus was scheduled to stop and
wanted to be reminded.
Table 3 compares questionnaire responses of shoppers and nonshoppers across the four sites. See Appendix 1 for overall responses by question. The shoppers shopped more often (3.0 times
in the last two weeks compared with 2.4 times for non-shoppers),
lived closer to the mobile market (1.9 miles compared with 5.9 miles
for non-shoppers), and consumed more fruit and vegetables (3.5
servings the previous day compared with 2.0 for non-shoppers). Nonshoppers also had more children, were more likely to enjoy cooking,
and have larger household sizes (1.9 adults and 0.9 children compared with 1.6 adults and 0.4 children for shoppers).
Fruit and vegetable consumption
The role of mobile markets in facilitating healthy food behavior
was corroborated by this study. Overall, shoppers ate signicantly
more servings of fruits and vegetables than non-shoppers (3.5 vs.
2.0; P > 0.001). At each site, shoppers ate more servings and the difference was signicant for all sites except Washington, DC (Table 4).
While not all their produce may have been purchased from the
mobile market, and those who prefer more fruits and vegetables may
seek out the mobile market, the mobile market altered availability, facilitating access, potentially increasing cognition, and altering behaviors. The following comment illustrates why mobile markets
may affect fruit and vegetable consumption by facilitating access
and raising cognition:
In the last few years, my diet has changed fairly radically. I didnt
used to really care too much what I ate. . . . But moving towards

L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

Table 4
Fruit and vegetable consumption of shoppers and non-shoppers by study sitea.
Market and Site

(# servings)

(# servings)


Gorge Grown
Stevenson, WA
Fresh Moves
Chicago, IL
Madison, WI
Washington, DC













Fruit and vegetable consumption for day previous to the date of the focus group.

the whole foods, you know, the closer you know where its prepared from, the better off you are. And so the farmers market,
of course, plays into that. (Shopper WA#5)


visual does not clearly answer two questions that participants articulated: how many servings of fruits and vegetables should I eat
and what is a serving?
Furthermore, fruits and vegetables were perceived as a luxury
rather than a necessity, particularly for parents when feeding their
children. In Chicago, IL, 60% of all participants said their main goal
when preparing a meal was that they and their families are full,
rather than ensuring that the food was healthy.
I cook for all the kids . . . I keep them full and out of trouble.
(Shopper IL#4)
For seniors, the diculty is a lack of motivation to cook because
they often live alone. In Washington, DC, 39% of the participants said
they were not motivated to cook because they were used to cooking
for large numbers of people, but now lived alone. To illustrate:
Well, for me [the problem] is having the appetite to eat ... since
Im alone, its not like when I had my children with me and my
grandkids, and I was cooking for them. I dont like cooking for
myself anymore. (Shopper DC#8)

Despite interest in eating more produce, on average, none of the

participants met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(2012) recommendation of nine servings per day. Over half the participants acknowledged the disparity: 54% of them said they would
like to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Emphasizing the value of fruits and vegetables to maintain health

together with facilitating shared cooking or cooking events may overcome these obstacles and increase healthier eating.

Obstacles and solutions

Lack of awareness about mobile markets

In coding the focus group transcripts, six major constraints inhibited consumers from using mobile markets to increase their fruits
and vegetable consumption: knowledge and perceptions; lack of familiarity with mobile markets; affordability; convenience; value and
service; and trust. Knowledge and perceptions reects the feedback loop identied in Alphabet Theory (Zepeda & Deal, 2009)
between attitudes, information seeking, and knowledge. Lack of familiarity reects how habits are conceptualized in Alphabet Theory
as affecting behaviors through attitudes and context. In addition,
Stages Theory (Wiedemann et al., 2009) would predict lack of familiarity affects cognition, and hence behaviors. Affordability, convenience, and service/value are contextual factors that Alphabet
Theory, ABC theory (Guagnano et al., 1995), and Kirscht (1974) would
predict as mitigating behaviors; they can be viewed as perceptions or attitudes in response to contextual factors. Ultimately, all
these factors affected perceptions of trust in the mobile market, and
hence shoppers attitudes about continuing to shop at mobile
markets and whether non-shoppers might be convinced to shop at
mobile markets. Each theme is discussed below, with quotes from
the focus group to illustrate the participants concerns and suggestions, often drawn from one of the mobile markets that could
mitigate the problem.

In general, the majority of the participants believed people do

not shop at mobile markets because they are simply not aware of
them, despite their presence in the neighborhood. Indeed, 90% of
the non-shoppers in Wisconsin had not heard of the mobile market,
even though it stops in front of a nearby community center twice
a week. The participants believed people would shop there if they
knew about it:

Knowledge and perceptions about fruits and vegetables

In general, participants seem to be unfamiliar with the recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption; 51% of 82 participants believed they ate enough fruits and vegetables, while only
8% of them ate ve or more servings a day. This implies a gap in understanding that could be mitigated by information about the
number of recommended servings and what a serving size is. Simple
messages, such as 5 servings a day accompanied by pictures of
serving sizes could be effective in correcting this misconception. The
adoption of visuals using Myplate (US Department of Agriculture,
2013c) to depict nutrition recommendations addresses these concerns to some extent. However, the plate visual presumes people
eat three meals of similar composition each day on a plate of a standard size. This visual does not address the needs of those who snack,
eat different types of foods at different meals, eat more or fewer
meals, eat multiple courses, or do not use plates. In addition, the

I think that people are not aware. They dont just know because
I really believe that if people seen this truck and it has fresh fruit
on it, I think they would stop just [from] sheer curiosity. (Nonshopper WI#17)
This became apparent after the conclusion of the non-shopper
focus group; the non-shoppers stepped outside and made purchases from the mobile market, praising it for its convenience.
Another obstacle is that while participants may have seen the
mobile market vehicle, many did not know they could shop there;
in Chicago, IL, some perceived the mobile market as a normal city
bus, while in Washington, DC the mobile market was perceived by
some as for seniors only:
And perhaps a lot of the family members dont know that they
can come and buy stuff off the truck.... So I say advertise, advertise, advertise. (Shopper DC#12)
The participants, particularly seniors, indicated they want to be
reminded in advance about when and where their mobile market
is, but also what is on it and how much it costs, so they could plan
their food shopping around it:
People dont want to go on the bus, get on there and pick up two
or three items, and they cost an arm and a leg, you know. So they
want to know what its going to cost before they even get there
to see if they can even afford it. (Non-shopper IL#12)
Overall, 54% of all participants wanted more advertising. They
specically requested yers with locations and times, banners at
stops informing everyone they can shop there and that they accept
SNAP, and use of a loudspeaker and jingles to announce the bus
arrival in the neighborhood. High-tech recommendations such as
smart phone apps, e-mails or even websites are not recommended
because only one participant listed their e-mail for contact


L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

information. Many of the other participants appeared to use payas-you-go cell phones strictly for telephone calls, not for web applications or texting, and exhibited concern over the cost of making
phone calls in the recruitment phase.
Affordability was a central theme of all the focus groups; about
40% of all participants specically mentioned that affordability either
prevented them or others from shopping at a mobile market:
Ive only been down there once, and that was when they rst
started. And I just cant afford it. (Non-shopper WA#1)
This is illustrated by 88% of participants who reported hunting
for bargains at national chain grocery stores, often using newspaper ads for specials and coupons. Affordability was an issue particularly at the end of the month, when people ran out of money or
SNAP benets, as illustrated by the following comment:
Well, I get an ample amount [of fruits and vegetables], but toward
the end of the month, when your little money and your stamps
start dwindling, then your vegetables and your fruits dwindle
too.(Non-shopper DC#20)
The participants often mentioned that lower prices would mean
people could buy more fruits and vegetables:
I would change the prices to make it more affordable . . . if their
prices is better than [national chain] . . . then more likely, more
people would use the mobile [market].(Shopper WI#2)
This conrmed that physical access is not the only issue; prices
negatively affect fruit and vegetable consumption as well. This was
particularly true at the end of the month when money or benets
ran out and for mobile markets that could not redeem farmers
markets coupons because the mobile market was not selling product
sourced directly from farms. Extending farmers market coupons to
all mobile markets would make produce more affordable. Implementing special coupons and promotions at the end of the month
would be particularly helpful to increase produce consumption.
While 24% of the participants mentioned convenience something they appreciated about mobile markets, 33% of participants
suggested including additional stops at more convenient times. Convenience is particularly appreciated in light of lack of access to affordable foods:
There are some people that cant drive to get to certain stores
to get fresh fruit or vegetables or anything . . . so then they end
up going to rip-off joints that are close, like a gas station thats
charging you twice or three times the amount of what the item
should be. (Non-shopper WI#20)
Another issue was the food offered. While both shoppers and nonshoppers appreciated that mobile markets could make produce more
accessible, 27% of all participants wanted a greater variety of products. The shoppers would like to see more variety at the mobile
markets, while the non-shoppers indicated if they were to shop there,
they would expect variety. This was important, particularly for
seniors, who have diculties carrying groceries on public transport, especially in winter. Providing staple foods to permit onestop shopping could encourage greater use of mobile markets:
Because honestly, the reason why we shop at the bigger grocery
stores is because its one-stop shopping. It would be nice if the
farmers market kind of had a lot more to choose from. (Shopper

Increasing the number of stops and including times when employed people were likely to be home, such as during the weekend,
could make mobile markets more convenient and therefore attract
more people. In addition, stops during the day at convenient locations, such as schools and senior homes, were indicated as desirable. In Chicago, IL the seniors indicated that they appreciated the
helpful staff who assisted them in carrying their purchases. Lastly,
adding staple foods along with produce would be helpful because
it would eliminate the need to travel to brick-and-mortar stores.
Value and service
Quality of produce is important in dening value for 28% of the
participants. Produce needs to look fresh and inviting; the participants recounted stories of trying new things simply because they
looked so good. However, quality of produce can be negatively affected by perceptions about the mobile market. In Stevenson, WA,
non-shoppers perceived the farmers market aliated with the
mobile market as expensive, even elitist, and therefore viewed all
the produce as mediocre:
[F]rom an appearance standpoint [the food at the farmers
market] should be extraordinary, should be better than what I
would nd in most places. And I havent found that in the limited
times Ive been there. . . [This] certainly affects my attitude toward
it. (Non-shopper WA#17)
On the other hand, the value placed on service was clearly apparent in Chicago, IL and Washington, DC. Thirty percent of the shoppers mentioned positive experiences with informative staff in a nice,
clean environment. To illustrate the how service inuences the perception of value:
It was just nice. I couldnt believe it. I said, oh, my, I said when
they coming back? . . . And when I went up there, they helped
you up on the bus.. . . When you get through shopping, they help
you off the bus saying, thank you, thank you. Its really nice.
(Shopper IL#8)
In addition, 27% of all participants indicated they would like to
see samples and demonstrations; tasting would encourage them to
purchase more fruits and vegetables:
You know how when youre shopping at a grocery store, and you
may get all the way home, and the fruit wasnt as ripe as you
thought it was going to be or as sweet or as juicy as you thought
it was going to be? I would think like putting out a few samples
out. (Non-shopper IL#20)
To attract customers and to avoid rumors that could lead to a poor
reputation, the respondents indicated they expect mobile markets
to provide service and high quality produce at reasonable prices. The
indicated that the staff needs to be welcoming, helpful, and knowledgeable about the produce. Furthermore, providing samples and
demonstrations could facilitate greater fruit and vegetable consumption by allowing shoppers to try new things and learn how to
prepare meals centered around vegetables.
Trust is an overarching theme in the focus groups. All the participants live in communities where food access is dicult and most
of the participants are poor and hence vulnerable. The participants talked about how food access was important to their community and its well-being:
I think [the mobile market] is a good idea, because not a lot of
neighborhoods have a grocery store, produce store right around
their corner. So its bringing them fresh fruits and vegetables right

L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

to them instead of them going on the bus or, you know, driving
18, 30 minutes to get it. So I think its just more convenient for
the people to get fresh, healthy food. (Non-shopper IL#13)
Furthermore, when participants understood that the mission of
the mobile market is to increase food access, this increased their
trust and appreciation of the mobile market. Interestingly, the mobile
market managers mentioned that they perceived their nonprot
status as being potentially stigmatizing to their clients, so they did
not incorporate this information in their communication strategies. However, because many participants thought that the mobile
market was a for-prot business, this may explain why they expected prices to be competitive with big box stores or why some
participants extended negative experiences with for-prot mobile
food vendors to mobile markets. Instead of viewing the nonprot
status negatively, the participants actually perceived it as enhancing their opinion of mobile markets:
I appreciate, you know, someone actually taking out the time
to care about maybe people who are not really thinking about
something like [healthy eating], as far as your diet and how, ten
years from now, that that can affect you.. . . (Non-shopper
This was particularly evident in their appreciation of mobile
markets targeting stops or programs for children and seniors.
I think its a good idea, because you have to also look at senior
citizens. There are some senior citizens, they cant get out of the
house or dont have the adequate mobile ability to go anywhere. And at least if they can make it to their front door or down
the block, then they can meet, get their produce and everything. The people that work for it, I met one young man. He came
to the school, and he seemed very polite and everything, you
know, very nice, and I give them all applause. (Non-shopper
Trust is fragile, particularly for vulnerable communities. While
they want what everyone wants, value, service, quality, and convenience, they may not often experience these qualities. This is not
simply due to lack of the food access due to the built environment, it is due to being in a disadvantaged and vulnerable position from lack of income in a society where income is often the
marker of societal worth. The participants made it clear that trust
is built through experience and relationships, that they valued direct
contact with mobile market staff that they perceived as being part
of their community. Shoppers in Washington, DC mobile market were
well disposed to the staff because they perceived them as a family,
although they were not. Shoppers in Chicago, IL, who were mostly
African-American, perceived the young African-American staff
very positively and assumed they were from their community.
Shoppers in Madison, WI perceived the White staff as not from their
community and as not being particularly friendly, while most nonshoppers in Stevenson, WA perceived the farmers market vendors
as not being from their community. The implication is that hiring
staff from the community, emphasizing relationship building with
the community, and projecting a message of caring may be important to build trust.
For the participants in this study, mobile markets may have facilitated healthy eating in food deserts; on average, those who
shopped at mobile markets (shoppers) ate signicantly more fruits
and vegetables than those who did not (non-shoppers). However,
neither shoppers nor non-shoppers ate the recommended nine servings per day by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012).
This conrms that while providing access is important, there are


Table 5
Summary of recommendations to increase use of mobile markets in low access areas.
Provide simple guidelines about recommended servings of fruits and
vegetables and develop simple illustrations of serving sizes
Promote shared cooking, offer cooking demonstrations and events
Extend farmers market food assistance, double vouchers, veggie RX and other
programs to all mobile markets, not just those sourcing from farms, provide
additional benets at the end of the month
Expand weekend operations of mobile markets, increase variety of products,
especially staples
Incentivize mobile markets to serve senior housing and schools
Emphasize customer convenience in setting hours and locations, and advertise
and promote widely
Develop programs for mobile markets to hire community staff and interns
Utilize advertising and promotions to attract customers to mobile markets

other constraints preventing people from greater fruit and vegetable consumption.
Our study found that participants did not know how many servings of produce they should eat, nor did they know what a serving
was, and in some cases they lacked cooking skills or motivation to
prepare healthy foods. This points to the importance of increasing
knowledge and cognition regarding nutrition and cooking, as indicated by Alphabet Theory and Stages Theory (Wiedemann et al.,
2009). Policy makers could therefore facilitate increased fruit and
vegetable consumption by supporting education and outreach
programs that use simple guidelines about recommended servings, offer materials illustrating serving sizes, demonstrate cooking
skills, and facilitate shared cooking. Collaboration with mobile
markets to deliver these programs represents an opportunity to
provide information, skills, motivation and access to fruits and vegetables through a single venue. Table 5 summarizes recommendations to help facilitate the effectiveness of mobile markets. To the
extent possible, policy makers and funders should address these
The results indicated affordability is crucial; the participants
shopped at national chain grocery stores and searched for bargains, promotions, and coupons due to limited budgets. Mobile
markets need to be competitive on price and quality with such stores;
they also need to be sensitive to household budget pressures particularly at the end of the month when food assistance has been
spent. The mobile markets can do this by providing specials and discounts focusing particularly at the end of the month, when many
people are waiting for their next paycheck or benets. Farmers
Market WIC and Senior Farmers Market food assistance programs
provide additional benets to vulnerable groups, but can only be
used at mobile markets that are aliated with farms. Policy makers
could facilitate greater purchase of healthier foods by extending these
programs to all mobile markets.
While mobile markets are seen largely as convenient, adding stops
on the weekend would allow more people to shop there. In addition, including staples among the items offered would both bring
in more customers and make shopping easier, especially for seniors
who have problems with transportation. Funding programs to
operate on weekends and to expand products sold at mobile markets,
especially local value-added products (e.g. baked goods and dairy
products), as is done by Arcadia Mobile Market, can enhance both
convenience and the perception that the market is attuned to customer preferences.
Participants in this study were largely unaware of the missions
of mobile markets. They were impressed when they understood that
the mobile markets were nonprots that aim to improve food access,
especially if the market had programs targeting seniors or children. Mobile markets can enhance their reputation by letting communities know they are nonprots and by including stops near
schools and senior homes. School stops are perfect opportunity to


L. Zepeda et al./Appetite 79 (2014) 5867

provide education programs and sell healthy snacks; in Chicago some

children even used the opportunity to do the family shopping. Mobile
markets can provide healthy foods to seniors with kitchen access,
and health snacks to those without. However, revenues from stops
at schools and senior centers may be low given limited purchases
for snacks or seniors living alone. Incentives for mobile markets to
serve institutions for seniors and children and provide education
or skills programs might include access to Federal procurement programs, additional funding, or targeted fundraising.
Findings indicate that in order to increase potential customer
awareness, mobile markets need to focus on publicity and advertising. Strategies that would enhance their operations include: providing information about locations, times, products and prices in
advance, using banners, yers, loudspeakers and jingles, and letting
people know all are welcome. The focus group results imply that
such advertising would facilitate greater awareness of healthy foods
provided by mobile markets. The AMS FMPP could be a source of
funding for these activities, since such grant uses are clearly within
its scope.
Finally, trust is an important issue in these vulnerable communities. Many have experienced or heard about being ripped off by
mobile food vendors and therefore do not feel comfortable shopping at mobile markets because they are unfamiliar with them. Since
the participants had limited budgets, they were particularly sensitive about obtaining high quality produce; they could not afford to
waste money or waste food. What the participants in this study
wanted were fruits and vegetables that were high quality, at competitive prices, and impeccable service. This may require having more
than one staff person at the mobile market, providing information, samples and demonstrations, and of course keeping the mobile
market neat and clean. Having a staff member or an intern from the
community would also foster greater trust because the community could see one of their own as part of the mobile market. Unfortunately, many mobile markets experience nancial diculties and
suspend operations before they become a part of a community. This
happened to two of the four mobile markets included in this study:
Fresh Moves closed in August 2013 and Freshmobile in the Fall 2013.
Policies and community partnerships that foster continuity, as well
as training, service and offer internships to community members
could be particularly useful to attracting more shoppers to mobile
While this study is limited to four sites, it provides a number of
insights that could be adapted by policy makers or other mobile
markets. We propose that future research addresses how many
mobile markets there are and how effective they are in providing
access to fresh fruit and vegetables or increasing farm sales. This
could be done by building a database of mobile markets in the US
and by interviewing mobile market managers and consumers about
the effectiveness of their strategies to promote access and sales. Such
an approach would help identify best practices. Of particular interest is to determine whether the higher consumption of fruits and
vegetables by mobile market shoppers found in this study is widespread across all areas served by mobile markets and whether the
strategies identied here to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption can be adapted and successful elsewhere. Finally, future
research could investigate how mobile markets facilitate fruit and
vegetable consumption and for whom. Do mobile markets merely
make it more convenient, or do they change perceptions and intentions about eating healthier foods?
Overall, these participants want what everyone wants: value,
quality, and service. However, most of the participants in this study
face severe resource and infrastructure constraints in trying to eat
healthier food. To facilitate and promote healthier eating, mobile
markets need to not only provide high quality produce at affordable prices, nutrition education, and service, they need to foster trust
and build relationships with the communities they serve.

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fulltext.html> Accessed 2.2.13.

Appendix 1. Pre-focus group questionnaire and summary of

results (n = 82)
Do you like to cook? (please, circle one): (n = 79)
No (5%)
Sometimes (26%)
Yes (66%)


How many times have you gone grocery shopping in the past two
weeks? (n = 80)
Mean 2.7 2.1
How far is the nearest grocery store to your home? (n = 81)
Mean 5.0 7.2 miles
How far is the {market name} mobile market from your home?
(n = 73)
Mean 3.7 7.7 miles
Do you use a SNAP card? (circle one) (n = 81)
Yes (50%)
No (50%)
How many servings of fruits and vegetables did you eat yesterday? (1 serving is a cup for most fruits and vegetables, one piece
of fruit, or one cup for salad greens) (n = 77)
Mean 2.9 2.3
Are you employed? (circle one) (n = 82)
Yes (18%)
No (82%)
If Yes, how many hours do you work per week? (n = 15)
Mean 31.8 12.9 hours
If Yes, how many hours do you commute to work per week? (n = 11)
Mean 4.2 5.9 hours
Are you a student? (circle one) (n = 82)
Yes (10%)
No (90%)
If Yes, how many hours do you spend in classes and studying per
week? (n = 10)
Mean 10.3 8.7 hours
If Yes, how many hours do you commute to your school per week?
(n = 8)
Mean 2.1 1.7 hours
How many adults 18 or older are there in your household (including yourself)? (n = 82)
Mean 1.7 1.0
Age and gender of all adults in your household (n = 80 for age, n = 82
for gender)
Mean age of respondent 52 years
Gender of respondent 60 F; 22 M
Number of children (under 18 years) in your household: (n = 82)
Mean 0.6 + 1.1
Does anyone in your household (including yourself) suffer from overweight, obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or food allergies? (circle one) (n = 81)
Yes (50%)
No (50%)
How many household members are affected by these diseases?
(n = 40)
50 total