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City bus sees new life as a mobile farmers market.

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Judging by the lack of healthy food options in underserved areas of Memphis, it seems as though major grocery retailers aren't clamoring to fix the food desert problem.

So the Vance Avenue Collaborative, a coalition of stakeholders in downtown's Vance Avenue community, has its own solution: A repurposed city bus will serve as a traveling farmers market. Modeled after the Fresh Moves Bus in Chicago, this mobile market will bring fresh produce to food deserts around Memphis.

"Many residents of the city living on limited income reside in neighborhoods without a full-service grocery store," said Kenneth Reardon, director of the graduate program in city and regional planning at the University of Memphis. "We want to bring healthy fruits and vegetables into these not underserved but unserved communities."

The bus, which will tentatively be unveiled at the Gibson Guitar/Baldwin Piano 5K race in June, will likely make four stops a day on a route through South Memphis. But organizers hope they can eventually extend the routes into other needy areas, such as Binghamton, and increase the service to six days a week.

The idea for a traveling farmers market stemmed from a meeting on the HUD Choice Neighborhoods grant last July. At this open forum for the Vance Avenue community, Cathy Winterburn, a member of St. Patrick's Church, took note of community members who expressed a need for access to fresh, affordable foods.

"I started reading about pop-up stores and that percolated for a couple of weeks. But then I was reading Oprah's magazine and saw an article about Fresh Moves," Winterburn said. "I said 'Bingo. That's what we've got to do.'"

"They were very helpful. I took some benchmark questions with me to figure out what works and what doesn't," Winterburn said. "Architecture for Humanity, who did the retrofitting design for Fresh Moves, gave us a copy of their design to use on our bus."

The Vance Avenue Collaborative has already procured a bus from the Memphis Area Transit Authority for a fee of $1 a year. The architects at Looney Ricks Kiss volunteered to oversee the retrofitting of the bus, including tearing out seats and putting in bins and stainless steel shelving.

Preparing the bus for service will cost from $25,000 to $35,000, and yearly operational costs will run about $250,000. Donations from philanthropic organizations and individuals will be necessary to support the project.

The coalition will collaborate with the city's Division of Housing and Community Development to gain access to public housing facilities where there might be a need for such a bus. They'll also work with local farmers and wholesalers to stock the bus, and they'll use MATA software to design efficient routes.

In a Memphis twist on the familiar sound of the ice cream truck, Reardon wants to use local music to announce the arrival of the bus: "Playing some of Isaac Hayes' stuff would be spectacular."

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