The idea of converting old CTA buses to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in Chicago's food deserts proved so popular that Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to town to announce federal money for the program.
Standing in front of a shiny red bus in June 2012, the mayor related the story of his successful pitch. "To his great credit and his staff's, Tom said, 'I'm on it. It sounds too good to be true.' "
Less than a year and a half later, that bus and two others that operate under the moniker "Fresh Moves" are now parked. Federal funding has run out and the nonprofit organization is searching for a new business model and partners in the hopes of soon resuming a difficult mission: Selling produce on razor-thin margins from mobile grocery aisles in areas not accustomed to having access to fresh food.
"We have proven that people in these communities do buy produce," said Eli Williamson, a board member of Food Desert Action, the group that runs the buses. "Normal grocery stores don't make much off of the sale of produce, they make more money off of meat and a bunch of other things. So, the question is: What's the next iteration to make this a viable and sustainable, market-driven solution to food deserts?"
The stalled buses represent the latest setback in the city's effort to combat the lack of access to fresh produce on the South and West sides. The Tribune reported in August that many of the mayor's announcements of new or expanded stores to fight food deserts have fallen short, though Emanuel recently declared "great progress" on the issue.
Fresh Moves launched its first bus in May 2011 to much fanfare and media attention. Emanuel took notice and said he asked his staff to look into it further. Over breakfast in Washington, Emanuel used his pull as President Barack Obama's former chief of staff to sell Vilsack on funding Fresh Moves.
The $45,000 grant helped the organization expand its operations to a second bus. At the news conference announcing the money, Emanuel told Fresh Moves founder Steve Casey and others assembled that even more would be accomplished — thanks again to his ties in Washington.
"So, we're not done at two buses. This is out of Secretary Vilsack's discretionary funds," Emanuel said as some in attendance laughed. "There is a proper account that will take some time, but we're applying for four more buses, or Steve's applying for four more buses, and I on a contract basis as a mayor, am going to help his foundation get those buses."
When the spotlight was gone, however, Casey was left to run an operation with a difficult reality to overcome: Fresh Moves wasn't turning a profit selling fruits and vegetables.
The organization lost $51,502 on produce sales in 2011, according its tax return for that year. In 2012, Food Desert Action listed $70,730 in revenue from sales, but $256,250 in expenses tied to its produce program — a difference of $185,520, according to tax records. It spent another $30,508 on fundraising and $45,085 on management and general costs, records show.
Fresh Moves' $45,000 federal grant was one-time money that ran out this year, Casey said in an email. The money, he said, was for "Fresh Moves to participate in a research study looking at mobile markets in urban and rural communities." Vilsack also awarded a grant to a produce truck that operated in rural Oregon and Washington, according to a USDA news release.
USDA officials could not be reached to discuss the grants because of the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government. Casey said Fresh Moves also received a 2011 federal grant to double the purchasing power of a customer using food stamps, but that funding ran out last year.
Despite the losses, Fresh Moves was able to stay afloat through private contributions and grants. It ended 2011 with $27,636 in cash and 2012 with $121,855, tax records show. But the produce bus business model remained unsustainable, and the organization took a "tactical break" in late August, said Williamson, the board member.