Meals on wheels

October 16, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

These 2% Solutions feature a mobile grocery and a mobile processing unit, both of which are innovative ideas for feeding people in food deserts. The entire collection of 2% Solutions (so far) is available at:

The MoGro

What’s a MoGro? It’s an oasis in the middle of a food desert – at least that’s what I thought when I saw the mobile grocery store parked on the plaza at Santo Domingo Pueblo, north of Albuquerque. Pueblo residents probably felt that way as well when the store made its first visit in the spring of 2011.

Physically, the mobile grocery – called a MoGro for short – is a large, custom-built semi-truck that expands in the middle when parked. Inside is a full-service, mini-grocery store, including a refrigerated section for veggies and frozen food. Flour, rice, milk, pasta, olives, meat, cheese, salad, canned goods – it’s all there.

With a catch.

All of the food is either organic, grassfed, local, lean or low-sugar (or a combination thereof), which means it’s healthy. There’s nary a can of soda pop, box of doughnuts or bag of greasy potato chips in the whole place, intentionally so. The food is affordable too – which is another reason why the MoGro feels like an oasis. It’s also popular, as I witnessed. It visits Santo Domingo twice a week, attracting 70-80 customers per day. And much of what they purchase is fresh produce.

Philosophically, the MoGro is a way to eradicate persistent health problems plaguing Native American communities, such as obesity and diabetes, by providing nutrition-rich, affordable food on a regular schedule and conveniently located.

It’s the brainchild of Rick and Beth Schnieders in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health, based in Albuquerque, La Montanita Food Cooperative and Santo Domingo Pueblo. Their collective vision is to eliminate so-called food deserts by bringing healthy, affordable and sustainable food to the people who need it most. Food deserts are created when a full-service grocery store is located far enough away from a community that residents are encouraged to choose the easier – and cheaper – alternative for meals: fast food or gas station convenience stores.

The result of food deserts is a well-documented epidemic of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Native Americans have one of the highest obesity rates in the nation at 35%. Moreover, their reliance on processed foods can be traced back more than a century when the federal government, as part of its “acculturation” program, encouraged Native Americans to adopt a western diet of lard, sugar, and white flour, which didn’t sync with native health needs at all.

The idea for the MoGro took root ten years ago on the Navajo Reservation when the Schnieders, who have been long-time supporters of the Center for American Indian Health, visited a grocery store in Chinlee, Arizona, and were appalled by the food choices they saw. “They were all bad,” said Beth. “There were no veggies in the entire store, for example.” Meanwhile, the Center received reports from its project workers that that Navajo mothers were grinding up candy bars to feed their infants.

It gave Rick Schnieders a middle-of-the-night idea: a beer truck. Not stocked with beer, of course, but with food. At the time Rick was CEO of Sysco, the largest food service corporation in the nation. As 27-year employee of Sysco, he knew a thing or two about food and food delivery. He also served on the Board of Share Our Strength, an industry-supported nonprofit devoted to ending childhood hunger, which connected him with the Center for American Indian Health. Through this contact he learned that what native peoples needed more than access better information and education was access to healthy food itself.

Enter the beer truck idea – now rechristened as the MoGro.

The Schnieders and the Center decided to approach Santo Domingo Pueblo to see if tribal residents might be interested in their idea. Out of 500 households surveyed, 300 responded and 98% said they would be receptive to a mobile grocery. This kicked off a two-year process of planning and dialogue.

“They knew they had a problem,” Rick said. “One leader told us they were already building a dialysis facility for diabetes patients in the pueblo. They were definitely interested in alternatives.”

In the meantime, the Schnieders had to answer a question: what exactly was a mobile grocery store? When they looked around for examples, they found none. The closest prototypes were an unrefrigerated mobile store in Oakland, California (since closed), and the U.S. military’s mobile commissary for troops, which featured many non-food items. Even an inquiry to the Rand Corporation produced a dead end. Apparently, no one had ever tried this idea before!

Their learning curve, in other words, was steep.

Working with La Montanita Co-op and Santo Domingo Pueblo, the Schnieders came up with an inventory of healthy, non-processed food that met the needs of tribal members. Next, they custom-designed a semi-truck, hired staff locally and began twice-a-week runs to the pueblo. Most of the groceries were set up and sold outside the truck, which turned out to be a mistake. The sun, rain, wind and dust were hard on the food and the people. The answer was MoGro 2.0 – an air-conditioned truck where customers shop inside.

Another challenge has been a pleasant one – the popularity of the MoGro. Not long after deliveries began at Santo Domingo, the Pueblo of Cochiti contacted the Schnieders and asked to sign up. Today, the MoGro makes regular visits to San Felipe, Jemez and Laguna Pueblos as well. Additionally, it stops for a half-day at the non-native community of Cochiti Lake – a result of non-natives stopping by the truck to shop!

For all its pioneering fits-and-starts, the MoGro appears to be a success. Not only is it in demand – the Schnieders have fielded inquiries from all over the world – it has had a tangible, positive impact on the communities it serves. These include 1) providing affordable access to healthy foods; 2) saving customers up to $100 per week with its ‘MoGro Bucks’ discount program; 3) reducing carbon footprints by something like 10,000 car miles per week and; 4) strengthening local food traditions.

It’s not easy creating an oasis in a food desert. There’s still a learning curve, the Schnieders say, but they feel the MoGro has turned a corner thanks to their staff, their partners and the support the project has received. Fortunately, the MoGro is no mirage!

Here a photo of the MoGro:

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The Mobile Matanza

A common complaint among grassfed ranchers, local food advocates and rural development entrepreneurs is a chronic lack of slaughterhouses nearby. Too often, producers must drive long distances to have their animals processed, raising their costs and reducing their profitability as a consequence – and jeopardizing the sustainability of their product.

Here’s one solution: instead of driving to the slaughterhouse, have it come to you!

I was introduced to this idea on a sunny day in late September 2006, when I drove to Taos, New Mexico, to attend a ribbon cutting ceremony for a mobile slaughtering unit (MSU), only the second one in the nation at the time. I joined a sizeable crowd of local ranchers, farmers and others at the headquarters of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC), a nonprofit co-directed for over twenty-five years by Pati Martinson and Terrie Bad Hand.

Of mixed Native American ancestry, both have extensive backgrounds in social justice work, education, economic development, youth leadership and civic engagement. Which may be why they dubbed the MSU a matanza, which is a Spanish word for a communal celebration involving the annual harvest of a farm’s livestock – an old tradition.

The idea of a mobile matanza is a simple one: a semi-truck carrying a self-contained slaughtering lab and cold-storage unit drives to a farm or ranch and processes the livestock on site. The truck then takes the carcass to a local cut-and-wrap facility where it hangs for 14-21 days before being cut, packaged, labeled and frozen for sale or storage.

The idea of a mobile unit originated among a ranchers’ cooperative in the San Juan Islands, in Puget Sound, near Seattle. Isolated on their respective islands, the ranchers were frustrated with the high cost and the logistical difficulty of taking their animals to a slaughterhouse on the mainland, so they decided to build a ferry-friendly facility instead. In 2002, after a period of trial-and-error, they arrived at a design that met their needs and the needs of various regulators – and the nation’s first MSU went to work.

The idea came to New Mexico in 2006, when the state Legislature, with the backing of Governor Bill Richardson, approved a $200,000 appropriation to purchase a mobile unit and entrusted the project to Pati and Terrie at TCEDC. Shortly thereafter, they made a field trip to Puget Sound to see how a MSU operated and were struck by its potential for northern New Mexico.

“The isolated islands we saw were like the isolated villages around Taos,” Terrie told me. “It worked there and we thought it could work here.” It has – and well – as I observed recently.

Back in 2006, however, the mobile matanza faced a series of intimidating challenges, including:

  • Meat Inspection – the USDA wasn’t interested initially and the state inspection system had just been suspended by the Governor.
  • Bias – overcoming long-standing prejudices by agencies and regulators against local, family-scale producers, which Pati and Terrie viewed as a civil rights issue.
  • Adaptation – built in Washington, the MSU had to be adjusted to New Mexican conditions (higher ground clearance, bison slaughter) – not to mention driving the unit all the way home!
  • Money – the Legislature provided zero funds for staffing the MSU, maintaining it or advertising its services.
  • Job Descriptions – they had to be made up from scratch.
  • Cut-and-Wrap – where was it going to be done? All the local options around Taos were going out of business or had scaled back substantially.
  • Year-Round Supply – ranchers had to consider slaughter beyond just the fall.
  • Regulators – before the matanza could open for business (and stay in business) nine different regulating authorities had to sign off, including organic certification, transportation, the state Environment Department, weight & measures, the Livestock Board, the USDA, and even Homeland Security.

To top it off, Pati and Terrie had to be creative in a hurry. On the cut-and-wrap front, for example, they went to the largest refrigeration company in the nation, Polar King, and asked them to custom-build an 800 square-foot, self-contained fiberglass facility to be housed at TCEDC – ½ for cutting/hanging and ½ for wrapping. “They were great to work with,” Pati said, “and we were able to install it very quickly.”

Finding the right combination of staff – two in the mobile unit and two in the cut-and-wrap – has proven to be a longer-lasting challenge, though they are very pleased with the staff in place now.

In addition to being mobile, the matanza is highly humane – as I witnessed during my visit. A USDA inspector is on site to ensure that the animal is healthy, well-treated and feels as little pain as possible when it is killed. The whole process is held to the highest standards, the inspector told me, including organic certification.

Terrie said the matanza processes about 100,000 lbs of meat each year – meat that is produced by the community and stays in the community as does the money it generates. This includes the added value it brings to the ranchers via sales at farmer’s markets and at grassfed premium prices, which, in turn, has a positive impact on maintaining the land-based traditions and culture of the area. The Food Center at TCEDC assists ranchers with labeling and marketing too, if they want it.

By bringing the slaughterhouse to the producer, fuel and transportation costs are saved, feedlots are bypassed, economic values can be added on, food stays in the community in which is was raised and cultural traditions are reinforced.

However, Pati cautions “Never do this as a stand-alone enterprise. It must be part of a community food system. That way it is part of a larger effort to help people.”

Here a photo of the Mobile Matanza:

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Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press

Tags: 2% solutions, Community Food Systems, food deserts, mobile grocery