Madison grocer has plan to serve ‘food desert’

For some residents in Madison’s Allied Drive neighborhood, buying groceries at a gas station or drug store is their most likely option.

Categorized as a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its limited access to grocery stores and low-income residents, the neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side has been without a supermarket within walking distance since a Cub Foods on Verona Road closed in 2009.

But one of Downtown Madison’s newest grocers is looking to solve that problem with an idea to bring affordable produce to under-served neighborhoods: a grocery store on wheels called the Freshmobile.

Jeff Maurer, who owns Fresh Madison Market near the UW-Madison campus and has volunteered at the Allied Drive Boys and Girls Club for years, said he sees a need for affordable produce there.

“In the Allied Drive neighborhood, they’re shopping at a Walgreens or a Mobil station,” Maurer said. “We’d just like to provide a different option.”

His solution is a 34-foot tow trailer outfitted with coolers, shelves and, most importantly, fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy.

Maurer plans to take the trailer around Madison’s under-served neighborhoods throughout the week, giving residents access to food they might not otherwise have. He said the nonprofit Freshmobile Initiative can provide low overhead costs that would help keep food prices low.

Ald. Brian Solomon, 10th District, represents the Allied Drive neighborhood and supports Maurer’s idea.

“I know a lot of people in Allied that want to eat healthy food, they just don’t have access to it,” Solomon said.

The Freshmobile has a few hurdles to get past before it can start taking its food on the road.

The first is bureaucratic: According to Mayor Paul Soglin, the city’s vending ordinances are “not designed to encourage this kind of activity.”

But Solomon and Soglin recently co-sponsored three changes to vending ordinances that would allow mobile grocery stores like the Freshmobile to operate. Solomon introduced the changes at the City Council’s May 15 meeting, and he hopes the council will vote on them June 12.

The second hurdle is financial: Maurer said he has raised most of the $125,000 needed to buy the trailer, truck and equipment thanks to grants from local foundations and donations, but not all of it.

If the Freshmobile gets the money it needs, Maurer said, he hopes to debut the mobile grocery store at the Boys and Girls Club on June 27.

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