Native Eyes: Chattanooga Mobile Market

Authored By emmett.gienapp

Being a college student means that I’ve had to figure out how to do a number of things on my own. That seems like an incredibly obvious thing to say, but it was surprising to me when I first moved out how much energy it takes to keep life in order.

There are bills to pay, light bulbs to change and, as I discovered unfortunately, toilet paper to buy.

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However frustrating and painful it was to figure out those things through experience, though, I found that I was perfectly capable of all of them when I decided to stop being a lazy bum. I had access to everything I needed if I would just get off my couch.

But that’s not the case for a large portion of Chattanooga.

The Ochs Center reported in a recent study that 62,000 people in the Chattanooga area live in “food deserts,” which the USDA defines as low-income areas with limited or no access to grocery stores.

Inhabitants of areas such as Alton Park or East Lake have very few options that offer alternatives to fast food and gas station junk. There just aren’t healthy options available.

Limited access to whole foods leads to the expected outcomes of high obesity and diabetes rates.

This is a systemic issue with no single, easy solution; but thankfully, there are a number of programs that are leading the charge to combat socioeconomic issues. The Chattanooga Mobile Market is one such program.

The Chattanooga Mobile Market, which makes 12 stops throughout the city every week, brings the food to the people. They offer everything from produce to toiletries at competitive prices for individuals and families that can’t get to a store otherwise.

I spoke with one man at the market who described the situation bluntly.

“Before this, I’d wake up every day and decide whether or not I wanted a $5 pizza at Pizza Hut or fried chicken at the corner store. People out here only have junk food to eat,” he said.

Chattanooga is not the first city to see a market like this spring up to meet community needs. Similar programs have been set up in New York, Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis.

This particular market has partnered with the YMCA, Step ONE, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Gaining Ground to get off the ground and involved with the city. These programs originally served as an organizational backbone for the market and now help fund operations to keep fresh food on the streets. 

After a year of visiting the same locations, rain or shine, the market has gotten a foot in the door with the communities, and it’s here to stay. It now serves between 150-200 customers weekly and has a 90 percent customer return rate.

The goal is to tie into the community and provide a much-needed service year-round. Lori Bell, the director of Chattanooga Mobile Market, has worked tirelessly to tailor the program to the needs of the communities she works with. Whether it’s bringing along mobile kits to help kids in the neighborhood eat right or inviting seniors citizens at Gateway Towers to stay active with a fitness class, each stop is unique.

This summer marks the Mobile Market’s first anniversary, and organizers are working to start a number of educational expos as a community celebration.

These expos will feature a range of activities, from health-conscious culinary lessons to Zumba classes that encourage active lifestyles.

I have taken a lot of pride in my city over the years, but I have also come to see that Chattanooga has its own fair share of problems. People here can hurt out on the sidelines, just like any other city.

However, it’s encouraging to see community members like Bell pour themselves into helping where there is a real need. To me, the well-being of our neighbors, and the city as a whole, is something worth fighting for.

The Mobile Market is just one, very cool example of individuals gathering around a cause, but there are others as well. If you’ve got the time, groups like the food bank would be glad to have some volunteer help.

A couple hours here or there goes a long way when you’re talking about investing in the lives of others.

Emmett Gienapp is a writer trying to make it through college in Chattanooga. You can usually find him bouldering around the city, catering to pay rent or reading Dostoevsky in public places to appear intellectual. You can follow his column, Native Eyes, on Instagram and Twitter. Also feel free to contact him with suggestions, comments or stories via email.