WEST END – On normal business days, the People’s Health Center at 5701 Delmar Boulevard provides a variety of services from pediatric checkups to immunizations. Every Thursday, however, patients are welcomed to a big green bus full of vegetables, fruits, meats – and people buying them.
Originally, the vehicle helped people get around, as a Metro bus. Now, it’s the St. Louis Metro Market, a mobile grocery store that provides a healthy selection of produce, meats and other groceries to residents in low-income areas of the city.
“It definitely helps those in need that can’t get around to and from, can’t even get on the bus, can’t afford to pay a ticket or what not, and the mobility issues,” People’s Health recruiting specialist Ebony Crenshaw said. “So definitely going place to place assists the community.”
Metro Market, launched in 2015, was the brainchild of Jeremy Goss, then a medical student at St. Louis University, along with Colin Dowling and Tej Azad, graduates of Washington University. The idea was to help families struggling to buy groceries in food deserts by experimenting with a new model in the form of mobile shopping.
Once the three received grant funds from the Incarnate Word Foundation and a donated Metro bus to get around, they were in a good position to start.
“We didn’t want it to just feel like a food pantry on wheels,”said Executive Director Lucas Signorelli. “We want it to feel like a Whole Foods, like a farmer’s market was coming to you.”
With this idea in mind, Metro Market’s engineers Dave Stavron and Eric Mitchell changed the bus into a mobile grocery store, with its iconic green paint job done by Noah McMillan with artistic flair. Most importantly, they buy produce, vegetables and fruits from area farms and companies. They also buy vegetables at Produce Row and meats from Wenneman Meat Co. in St. Libory, Ill., about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis.
With the support of customers who regularly shop there and of neighborhood figures such as local activist Antwan Pope (who invited Metro Market to Wells-Goodfellow), the service expanded from only one neighborhood into a beloved nonprofit that currently serves seven. In locations that once drew 15-20 shoppers, it now gets 50-60 per hour.
“It’s more accessible because I’m right down the street, so it’s super convenient,” said Anthony Lewis, a shopper from West End.
Metro Market’s bus service was interrupted the week of July 8 because the vehicle broke down between stops.
“What we really [needed] to do is get her in the shop for a full week,” said Signorelli, “close the shop, and let the mechanics take the engine apart and really solve the problems so that we can get back out there.”
Now the bus is back, with plenty of healthy selections and customers who’ve missed them unconditionally.
“I know by them starting out there’s going to be ebbs and flows, [but] the community will be here to support them,” Lewis said.
As steps are taken to add more grocery stores in food deserts around the north side of St. Louis, Metro Market has embraced such additions to these areas.
“Diversity makes a healthy ecosystem,” Signorelli said. “So we feel like, yeah, we may be down the street from [grocery stores like] Greenleaf. We definitely do not want to compete with them, we want them to succeed, and we want to be complementary to the other food stores that are starting around town. We want to be supportive.”
But even with these stores sprawling across neighborhoods in the city, customers are happy with their beloved big green bus.
“They can show up, but they won’t show out,” Crenshaw said. “It’s cheaper, you have the organic [foods], you have everything you need and you don’t have to utilize a Schnucks or an Aldi’s necessarily, especially if you can’t get there. So coming into the area, I don’t think it’s going to throw the bus off at all.”
More information about St. Louis Metro Market and its weekly schedule is available on Instagram @STLMetroMarket and at STLMetroMarket.com.