Projects from mobile markets to full-on farms are greening America's food deserts.

Photo © Will Crocker
Students at Tulane's design-build program converted a former New Orleans golf course into the 4-acre Grow Dat Youth Farm, which includes a 6,000-square-foot education center made from shipping containers.

In a section of Seattle's Delridge neighborhood, residents who rely on public transportation face a daunting choice: take two buses to get to the nearest grocery store–or trek up a large hill. “What we found was that most people were either going to the grocery store much more infrequently, or they were becoming heavily dependent on convenience stores,” says Carrie Ferrence, a cofounder of Stockbox markets who studied access to fresh food in the city while completing her M.B.A. at Seattle's Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

Stockbox began in Seattle's Delridge neighborhood with a mobile construction office turned grocery. When its founders conceived the project, they imagined an itinerant network of temporary markets fanning out across the city's food deserts, but in response to demand, they have begun building larger, permanent stores.

That scenario is typical of urban food deserts–city neighborhoods with poor access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods. While there is no official measure of how scarce a carrot has to be for an area to qualify as a desert, a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million people live in low-income neighborhoods more than a mile from a supermarket, which could contribute to poor eating habits, obesity, and diet-related diseases. But in the vacuum left by traditional stores, urban innovators are experimenting with alternative models for delivering fresh food to underserved areas.

One notable success has been Chicago's Fresh Moves Mobile Markets, city buses repurposed as one-aisle grocery stores that make stops on the West and South Sides of the city five days a week. (The project was featured in the exhibition Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, which debuted at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale and is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through September 1.) A pro bono team assembled by Architecture for Humanity Chicago and led by Katherine Darnstadt of the firm Latent Design retrofitted the first bus in 2011. Fresh Moves reached more than 11,000 customers in its first year, and a third bus will join the fleet this month.

In East New York, Brooklyn, Abruzzo Bodziak Architects is extending the mobile idea to agriculture with a pair of butterfly-roofed greenhouse modules based on prefab components. At 1,100 square feet, the larger design fits the common sizes of New York City lots. The firm's client, the nonprofit Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, has access to 11 such sites through short-term leases. Pending financing, the group hopes to begin construction on its first hydroponic greenhouse next spring. “The benefit of having a kit that you can move from place to place or use in multiples is that you don't have to wait to remediate the site, which can be costly and take a lot of time,” says partner Emily Abruzzo.

Back in Delridge, Ferrence and her business partner, Jacqueline Gjurgevich, took a step toward solving the neighborhood's food problem with a pop-up market in a 160-square-foot mobile construction office. Stationed in a parking lot for two months in 2011, the first Stockbox sold a mix of produce, dairy, meat, and grocery staples. The project was a success, but the duo found that they needed more space to meet demand for a wider variety of items. Last year they opened a permanent 550-square-foot storefront in nearby South Park, and this summer Stockbox will add a 2,000-square-foot location in the First Hill neighborhood.

Improving food access alone won't end health problems associated with food deserts, notes Fresh Moves designer Darnstadt. “Getting that produce is just one step of the process that goes into a healthy lifestyle,” she says. At Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, high-school students not only tend 4 acres of crops in City Park, they also learn how to cook with them. To create the farm, architecture students from the Tulane City Center–the design-build program at the Tulane School of Architecture–converted a disused golf course damaged by Hurricane Katrina into agricultural land, which began production in January 2012, and built an adjacent education pavilion. With each crop, the high-school students learn several recipes, explains Emilie Taylor, design-build manager for the project. “Many students are in single-parent households, and often end up cooking for the family,” she says. “If we can give them skills and access to food, they'll cook better for their siblings.”

In March, Grow Dat began hitting the road, too. For his thesis project, Tulane master's sstudent Justin Siragusa created a mobile farmstand from a modified boat trailer. That evolution underscores the potential for these types of interventions to build on one another. “It's such a simple idea,” says Darnstadt. “You can grow tomatoes in the garden, then sell them to a mobile market, and you see this whole small-scale network of neighborhood enterprises form around food.”

Lamar Anderson is based in San Francisco and frequently contributes to RECORD.