MoGro: Innovations in Health and Well-being for New Mexico’s Food Deserts

By Rebecca Baran-Rees
MoGro Project Director
at the Santa Fe Community Foundation

Rebecca Baran-Rees
MoGro

The challenge of local and healthy food access is a complex puzzle being addressed across the country, from pre-boxed home delivery companies like Good Eggs, to mobile farmers’ markets and healthy produce vans.

In rural America, however, few organizations have taken up the mantle. With a greatly dispersed geography, small numbers of residents, and predominantly low-income families, our rural communities are in desperate need for something other than a bag of Hot Cheetos from the local gas station. But how, in an industry that survives on large volumes and low margins (think Wal-Mart), can a small, healthy food retailer serve low-income families?

That was the question MoGro wanted to answer.

MoGro (Mobile Grocery), a project of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, is a nonprofit mobile grocery initiative working to support sustainable local food systems and eliminate barriers to affordable healthy food. MoGro works in rural and Tribal lands, partnering with Pueblo communities, the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, La Montañita Co-op and Skarsgard Farms to address healthy food access in low-income and underserved regions of New Mexico.

With funding from Newman’s Own Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, MoGro has reached five Pueblos and three non-native communities in New Mexico and is planning to scale to 15 locations by the end of 2015.

MoGro was founded by former Sysco Foods CEO Rick Schnieders and his wife Beth. MoGro seeks to overcome barriers to affordability and access to healthy foods in economically distressed communities, starting with Native Americans. Mr. Schnieders recalls, “We started by initiating conversations with the elders and leaders in the Native American communities to get a sense of what they thought the problems were and what solutions should be explored. It became clear that families did not have ready access to healthy, affordable food.” With input from the partnering tribal communities, a mobile grocery store was born, bringing a full range of healthy affordable food to underserved rural areas.

More than just food access, MoGro facilitates community-based nutrition education, fitness classes, cooking lessons, technical assistance to new food retailers and community outreach to re-establish the vital link between local agriculture, nutrition and health. Recent surveys from the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health highlight MoGro’s positive impact, not solely in providing ready access to healthy food in the short term, but effecting long term changes in culture, attitudes, and behaviors of participating communities for improved health, as well as informing local and national policy recommendations.

Healthy Food Access as a Public Health Program

Healthy Food Access as a Public Health ProgramLet us first consider, for a moment, the consequences of not addressing this need. Obesity has rapidly emerged as one of the most serious public health problems facing children in the U.S. For New Mexico, the disproportionate prevalence of obesity and poverty among American Indian children puts this group at greater risk for obesity-related illnesses and unhealthy food environments. One-fifth of American Indian children are obese and one-quarter of American Indian households are below the national poverty line. High rates of poverty in native and rural communities are particularly troubling, given the association between income and diet; as income decreases, so too does the likelihood of a good diet.

Furthermore, American Indians have food insecurity rates that are estimated to be two to four times higher than non-American Indians in the U.S. In these rural and reservation areas, the nearest grocery store can often be roughly 60 to 100 miles round trip.

Trial and Error: What does it take to improve food access?

Tim Harford, author of Undercover Economist, and expert on Why Success Always Starts with Failure states in his TED talk, “It’s very difficult to make good mistakes.” Hardly revolutionary, but seemingly hard to implement, trial and error, he argues, is a fundamental step in achieving unique solutions to tackle the complex problems we face.

Since its inception in 2011, MoGro has uncovered valuable lessons regarding sustainability, and faced challenges to helping more families access healthy foods. For one, (while yes, it’s beautiful!) a large 40-foot grocery trailer can only consistently visit a few communities within the week. How do we support more families, particularly considering rural New Mexico is predominantly small towns where MoGro’s reach in each location is relatively small? To do more, we needed to change the model.

As such, over the past three years we have built an intentional pattern of adaptation and change – with constant input from our Pueblo community leaders and other stakeholders. In starting a transition from a large grocery trailer to a lean fleet of mobile vans, in March 2014, MoGro initiated its first “Food Club” at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe. From our initial trial, we found two key benefits to the Food Club model:

  1. More families and communities can receive healthy, affordable food at a lower price.
  2. It can become economically sustainable and should reach self-funding within four years.

With fewer resource inputs, the MoGro Food Club allows groups of families, colleagues, neighbors or community members to purchase individual boxes of locally and regionally-grown fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and value-added items, delivered to a common and convenient location. Along with the delivery, information on the local food source and farmer, nutrition and recipe materials are included in each member’s share. Food Clubs also bring valuable community connectivity and opportunities for sharing local food knowledge, histories, and recipes that support the collective dietary and behavior changes that lead to positive health outcomes and a stronger local economy. Much like the local quilting bees of years past, we want Food Clubs to support strong social networks – except this time, for healthy lifestyle changes.

With renewed funding from Newman’s Own Foundation and the USDA Local Food Promotion Program, MoGro is now embarking on an exciting new phase as it begins to introduce Food Clubs across the region.

Add to the Recipe, an Innovation in Philanthropy

In June of 2013, the Santa Fe Community Foundation assumed ownership and management oversight of MoGro, as long-term transition plans are made for potential tribal ownership. The Foundation is a natural home for MoGro. As Interim President & CEO Jerry Jones notes, “MoGro is an important initiative for the Santa Fe Community Foundation and an innovative model for philanthropy in our region. MoGro combines the dedication of a nonprofit focused on meeting a key community need with the drive of a devoted entrepreneur that is constantly “tweaking” the business model in an effort to get it just right ­– all of this while utilizing the financial expertise and organizational capacity of a Community Foundation as the backbone to incubate the initiative for future growth and ultimate sustainability. These three components, along with passionate donors and dedicated staff, make MoGro an exciting social venture for the future.”

What’s Next?

What’s Next?As MoGro builds community food access, we plan to double-down on the inspiring work of public health professionals. Through the prescription of healthy fruits and vegetables, local medical clinics, community health workers and nutritionists will integrate programming with MoGro to capture valuable information about the real work of making dietary changes and the benefits to be gained. The stakes are high, and there are very few easy answers. How do you make the food affordable long term? How do you scale and replicate the model to serve hundreds, maybe thousands, of communities? What’s the large-scale plan for healthy food access? Thankfully for MoGro, if we’ve learned anything, we’re sure there are great innovations to be made just around the corner.

For more information on MoGro go to-  www.mogro.net

Article by Rebecca Baran-Rees who currently works as the Project Director for MoGro, a mobile grocery initiative that partners with the John’s Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, La Montanita Co-op and Native American and Tribal communities to support sustainable local food systems, and eliminate barriers to affordable healthy food. Before moving to Santa Fe, she worked with low income and underserved communities in California and New York. Prior to graduate school, she worked to reform and monitor mental and medical health care in California State Prisons, and as a legal advocate for low-income families experiencing homelessness and the loss of their public benefits. She received her graduate degree from Cornell University in City and Regional Planning with an emphasis on community development, alternative service delivery models and participatory planning. Born and raised in San Francisco, Rebecca moved to Santa Fe with her husband and son in 2012.

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