Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Mobile markets provide innovative step toward greater food security

Grocery stores on wheels responsive to communities, but policy reform is still necessary
Riley Steinbrenner

As a creative solution to food insecurity, some Wisconsin residents have turned to mobile markets to receive their groceries conveniently and at lower costs. Milwaukee residents in particular use a Piggly Wiggly on wheels to receive food without having to travel long distances or pay high prices for grocery needs.

Food deserts refer to locations where access to affordable, healthy food is extremely limited. About 10% of Wisconsinites live in food deserts. Mobile markets stop at different housing facilities and schools in identified food deserts across Wisconsin. With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the markets can sell groceries at half price.

Food insecurity in Wisconsin is an acute issue. According to data from Feeding America, 415,400 people in the state experience hunger. Almost 40% of those are children. The mobile markets are responsive to this need, as about 88% of purchases directly benefit children, according to 2019 data from the City of Milwaukee.


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Food insecurity rates peaked in October 2020, reaching about 15%, according to the Wisconsin Food Security Project. They decreased to about 5% by late 2021 but have since spiked again to about 13% as of spring 2022.

Also noted in this data are the racial disparities in food insecurity. The inequality is particularly severe in Wisconsin. From 2015 to 2019, 7.4% of white households faced hunger, as opposed to 21.4% of Hispanic households and 32.6% of Black households. These discrepancies represent larger patterns of racial discrimination that block access to basic needs and resources.

Systemic racism is just one of many causes of food insecurity, however. Some of the other causes include poverty, housing issues and lack of quality healthcare. According to Feeding America, the intersection of different factors contributes to food insecurity, especially when individuals or families don’t have the resources to satisfy hunger and other basic needs simultaneously.

Addressing hunger at a systemic level requires making fundamental changes to the rules and programs that seek to address food insecurity. Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee nonprofit, said federal nutrition programs require policy reform to best serve communities. 

“There are several programs — federal nutrition programs — where the way the law was written limits access to food,” Tussler said. “It was intentional to control spending on the program. But it has the net result of harming people that need help.”

One example she cited of a flawed federal initiative that required reform is the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Some areas across the country receive federal funding to create summer food programs, where children can pick up meals during the summer months when they are not receiving food from school. 

The administrators of the program, however, were required to serve meals in a congregate setting, meaning children had to sit down at the site and eat their meals under supervision. This already impractical regulation became ludicrous during the pandemic, when social distancing and other changes posed challenges.

Since then, the federal government issued a waiver for this requirement, meaning children could pick up meals and bring them home, allowing for flexibility that was appreciated both within and outside of pandemic considerations. 

A waiver was also issued that allowed parents to pick up meals, instead of only allowing programs to directly serve children. These reduced barriers to access increased the number of children who benefited from the SFSP. According to the Hunger Task Force website, 203,752 meals were served in Milwaukee during the summer of 2022 as a result of these and other reforms.

Some argue that mobile markets lack the reach to address these systemic issues of hunger. Lydia Zepeda, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, said while they have some benefits, mobile markets alone can’t actually solve the issue of food insecurity.

“Pantries and mobile markets were created as an emergency food system,” Zepeda said. “And now they’re functioning as a way for people to get their groceries. There’s something wrong with that.”

Maintaining and operating mobile markets also comes with its own challenges. Tussler said that being a grocery store on wheels, factors like vehicle maintenance, inclement weather and internet access all present issues. Mobile markets also rely on grocery store owners who are willing to cooperate to offer low prices and convenience for customers.

Finally, they can be expensive to operate. The combination of upfront costs, long-term maintenance and providing half-price groceries makes for an unsustainable financial model, according to Zepeda. Mobile markets are expensive.

But Tussler countered that traditional food pantries are also very pricey. And mobile markets can offer more culturally competent solutions to food insecurity. For example, Tussler said that the mobile markets are stocked with different kinds of food depending on which community it’s stationed in. They have also been able to offer foods that align with certain diets, such as Halal options for Muslim customers.

Further, mobile markets have been serving Milwaukee communities for five years. Tussler said they plan to continue operating mobile markets, potentially expanding their use in the future.

Though mobile markets are a solution that provides people with the immediate benefits of healthy, half-price foods, they can’t solve food insecurity. Mobile markets are a viable intermediate step, but systemic changes are certainly necessary.

Zepeda emphasized the need to devote sufficient resources toward resolving the root causes of hunger. Short-term solutions serve specific needs, but they just aren’t enough.

“Why are we always willing to provide charity but never willing to provide dignity to people?” she said.

Zepeda said that if all the people who dedicated their resources toward food pantries and mobile markets would demand political change to address food insecurity, we wouldn’t have a need for short-term solutions.

Food security is a complicated issue considering the many barriers that get in the way of people being fed. Ultimately, people should have the freedom to buy their own groceries that align with their personal preferences. It may sound simple, but Tussler and Zepeda agreed that it’s an important aspect of sustainable food security that benefits not only customers, but farmers, the trucking industry and essential workers.

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“When people don’t get access to a food pantry and they don’t have federal programs in place, then you’re more likely to suffer ongoing hunger,” Tussler said. “The notion that you can just go to a store and buy your food? That’s the best one of all.”

Getting to that place on a broad scale will certainly demand systemic change. But in the meantime, mobile markets offer a solution to hunger that responds to community needs and emulates financial freedom — an innovative step toward justice.

Celia Hiorns ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.

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