The Nashville Mobile Market

Bringing food to Nashville’s ‘food deserts’

Kelley Frances Fenelon, current head of the Nashville Mobile Market, stocks produce on the market’s shelves

Food trucks are all the rage in Nashville, but the Nashville Mobile Market is a food truck of a different sort. It doesn’t serve up gourmet tacos or cupcakes; it’s a portable farmer’s market that makes regular appearances in communities where poverty is high and access to affordable fresh foods is low.

Nonprofit social enterprises such as the Nashville Mobile Market have become a natural and organic outgrowth of the Peabody experience. Leigh Gilchrist and Sharon Shields, who co-teach the Human and Organizational Development service-learning course Health Service Delivery to Diverse Populations, enjoy bearing witness to the birth of these ventures, and providing input and support as the students put those ideas into action.

“We’re an incubator for social entrepreneurship because we don’t stop at theory in our courses,” said Shields, associate dean for professional education and professor of the practice of education and human development. “We invite students to take theory and put it into practice through practicums, classes, internships and field experiences. We cultivate confidence, care and compassion, and by the time the students leave, they are doing phenomenal things.”

Market staffers pose with their trailer, which has become a welcome sight in Nashville’s poorer
neighborhoods

As an Arts and Science major, Ravi Patel took the Health Service Delivery class. While studying food deserts, Patel was inspired to begin the development of what would eventually become the Nashville Mobile Market.

Patel’s family is in the convenience store business, so he originally wrote a proposal on the need for a freestanding grocery store in the Edgehill community. Ultimately he determined the model was not financially sustainable. But he did learn something that sparked an idea. A community member shared with Patel that there once was a vendor the residents called “Market Man” who delivered fresh foods to the community in his pick-up truck.

“That got Ravi’s wheels going, and he refocused his efforts on a mobile version of his idea,” said Gilchrist, an assistant professor of the practice of human and organizational development.

In February 2010, Patel and some fellow students used a $65,000 grant from the Frist Foundation to purchase a trailer. The Center for Health Solutions hosted the Nashville Mobile Market, with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the university providing support. Baptist Healing Trust awarded a $51,000 grant to the group to help expand its program. That grant was recently renewed. Patel, now in his residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said his introduction to social entrepreneurship at Peabody had a lasting impact on his life.

A customer browses fresh produce offerings

“The Peabody class provided a jump start to create a simple theoretical solution to a complex social and economic problem, but it also had a much broader impact on me,” Patel said. “It changed my paradigm for approaching problems by encouraging me to think out of the box. Now seven years after my first day in that class, I can still say that paradigm shift affects my work today as a surgical resident in molding ways of thinking about patient and community health.”

Now operated under the umbrella of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and helmed by 2011 Vanderbilt Divinity School alumna Kelley Frances Fenelon, the Nashville Mobile Market continues its mission. It has been supported by hundreds of volunteers—Vanderbilt students, faculty, staff and members of the community—and operates in 15 sites in the major food deserts of Nashville, 35 hours per week.

The big white trailer is a welcome sight to area residents, who now have access to lean meats, fresh produce and nonperishable items at reasonable prices.

“Here in America, we have enough food that each of our neighbors should be able to eat the life-sustaining diet they deserve,” Fenelon said. “But our system is broken. By working to bring staples necessary for a healthy diet into neighborhoods that lack fresh food access, the Nashville Mobile Market gives us the chance to bring about social justice and systemic change.”

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