In 2012, Colin Dowling had big ideas on how to help grow City Greens, a nonprofit grocery store based in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood of St. Louis.
Dowling was a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, and during a social entrepreneurship class, he learned about issues some people face in accessing fresh, healthy food.
As a native of Ladue — a middle- and upper-class St. Louis suburb — Dowling said “the whole concept of food deserts was new to me . . . it was eye-opening.”
So when he was assigned a group project “to look at a social issue and come up with a game plan to address it,” Dowling chose food access and City Greens.
The grocer aimed to tackle food deserts — economically distressed areas where residents have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables — but it was still in its infancy and had a mobile unit that was underused, Dowling said. He and his co-founder, Tej Azad, presented the organization with a plan to sell affordable produce in low-income areas around St. Louis and connect with corporations to underwrite the costs.
Members of the nonprofit board told Dowling and Azad that they liked the pair’s ideas, but their charter dictated that they serve only Forest Park Southeast, the geographic area in which City Greens is located. “So unfortunately what you’re saying isn’t really usable for us,” Dowling recalled board members telling him and Azad.
Rather than give up on the idea, however, the two students decided to hop on a bus. Or, to be more precise, to try and acquire a city bus.
That route led to the creation of St. Louis MetroMarket, a nonprofit organization that aims to expand food access by selling fresh produce, among other food items, inside a retrofitted passenger bus parked in areas that are otherwise food deserts.
“This was never an issue that I had to deal with, and I’m fortunate in that respect,” Dowling said. “And I think recognizing some of the advantages that I have and contrasting that with the challenges that people face on a day-to-day basis, I think there is some sort of civic duty that I have to do something about it.”
As he tries to achieve his goal of eliminating food deserts, Dowling has applied the knowledge he gained while earning a master’s degree in business administration.
He is part of a millennial generation that, in the area of philanthropy, is interested in employing “innovative approaches” and improving “social issues rather than institutions,” according to the Millennial Impact Report, a decades-long study released in 2019 from the Case Foundation, which was started by the founders of Aol.
After being turned down by City Greens, Dowling and Azad concluded “that this was a really cool idea and someone should run with it, and we looked around and decided that if we want this to live on, that someone has to be us.”
The two met regularly at coffee shops around St. Louis and began looking for a vehicle. They also entered local and national pitch competitions to gain funding for the organization and had mixed success. In one contest, they finished in second place, which felt good but came with no money, Dowling said.
But in 2016, they entered the Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition at Washington University for the second time and were awarded $60,000 from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
They also approached Bi-State Development, the government agency that operates public transport in and around St. Louis, to request a bus donation.
“They actually were receptive to the idea, and several meetings and several months go by and we actually land ourselves a bus,” said Dowling, who volunteers as board president with the market and whose day job is in business analytics at a construction company in St. Louis.
“Whenever you are dealing with a start-up or any kind of nonprofit like this, once you put together a couple of wins, it really starts to gain momentum.”
MetroMarket received a $75,000 grant to transform the bus from the Incarnate Word Foundation, a Christian organization that aims to empower poor and marginalized people. The organization also hired an executive director, Lucas Signorelli.
Those steps meant they could circle back to potential funders who had turned them down in the hope that those funders now could see that the organization had “staying power,” Dowling said.
In 2016 — their first season of operation — they distributed 4,700 pounds of food to 3,000 people while the market-bus parked for 24 weeks in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of north St. Louis, according to the organization.
That helped to address food issues that exist in the city. According to 2015 research from the Washington University Institute for Public Health, 54.9 percent of St. Louis residents live in food deserts.
North St. Louis resident Arthur Lloyd Clark, 42, said a lot of the grocery stores where he once shopped have closed. Those that remain open often carry produce that is wilted, he said.
Clark said his grandmother prepared home-cooked meals every day, but she died in 2000 at age 72. These days, Clark says “the grandmothers are a lot younger — they might be under 40 — and they cling to fast food, stuff that is not good for you.”
Clark now buys greens, raw onions, garlic, mangos, strawberries and pineapples from the MetroMarket. A bundle of collard greens costs 50 cents, according to Dowling.
“They are having an incredible impact on north St. Louis; people appreciate them. They are actually destroying hunger in a fashionable way,” said Clark, who volunteers in the community.
Dowling said MetroMarket’s approach has been to address what its leaders see as the four primary factors contributing to food deserts:
“[There is] a physical barrier — peoples’ proximity to grocery stores. A financial barrier — providing reasonably priced options. The educational barrier — if you bring someone all this produce and it’s been so long since it’s been in that community, then you need to reeducate the community on how to use it. And then also an awareness barrier — the idea of food deserts when we started wasn’t an everyday term, and one of the things that we tried to do was highlight this issue.”
The organization has grown from the time when $300 in revenue represented a good sales day — “and many of them were below that,” Dowling said. Today that figure is $3,000. In 2019, they regularly stopped at eight different locations and sold 78,000 pounds of food to 40,000 people, according to the organization.
Dowling said MetroMarket has tried to “run a super-lean organization, like a start-up, whereas some organizations, 50 percent of the money they take in doesn’t seem to go to work on the problem” outlined in their mission.
That meant operating with a board of only three people during the first few years of the organization “so we could make quick decisions and pivot really quickly without having to track down nine different people,” he said. The board has since expanded to nine members to add “additional perspective,” he said.
Since MetroMarket started operating, a number of other similar nonprofit mobile markets have opened in Boston, Phoenix, Spartanburg, South Carolina and elsewhere around the country.
In 2019, the University of Buffalo hosted the inaugural Mobile Market Summitt. Signorelli attended and spoke about MetroMarket.
Lucia Leone, a community-based researcher at University of Buffalo, said she was “floored” by the organization’s funding model, which involves selling produce at a loss and seeking corporate sponsors and nonprofit grants to make up the difference. Most mobile markets are funded mostly by grants, said Leone, whereas funding for the St. Louis version is diversified, she said.
“It seems like they have done a really amazing job of getting businesses in the community to see the value of the mobile market,” said Leone. “Most mobile markets are nonprofit; that doesn’t mean they can’t generate revenue to support and expand their programming, and I think St. Louis understands that and realizes that grants are not the only options — and in some cases not the best option because they are fickle.”
Dowling said the organization also has tried to emphasize authenticity. That means listening to people in the communities the bus serves and “putting their ideas and feedback into our operations.”
The organization also recently hired a new executive director who grew up in one of the market’s target communities after Signorelli resigned. Quinton Ward first joined the organization as a community engagement fellow in 2015 while studying fine arts with an emphasis on graphic design at Webster University near St. Louis.
“What interested me about the organization from a design standpoint was just seeing how innovation and design were coming together to make creative outcomes, transforming a bus into a mobile farmer’s market. That really amazed me,” said Ward, who grew up in Spanish Lake in north St. Louis County. His experience there also spurred his interest in working on a project like the MetroMarket.
“We are going directly into the community, directly into their neighborhood, so when they walk out their front door or are driving down the main streets, we are there where the community is needing us the most,” Ward said.
Dowling said the organization hired Ward as executive director because of his skills, academic success and experience with the organization as well as with AmeriCorps, where he worked with the St. Louis Zoo to build educational programming at its new campus in north St. Louis. But the fact that Ward is from a community that the market serves “adds a perspective that we never had before,” Dowling added.
“[It] closes the loop between the community and our operation,” he said. “People are already familiar with Quinton. They see him working in the market. They know Quinton. They like Quinton, so they trust Quinton.”
As to where the bus is headed next, Dowling said the current vehicle is at full capacity. The organization recently launched a pilot program to provide food delivery to assisted living and senior centers, which could mean “changing the fleet structure to have different types of vehicles that can be more nimble and serve different types of places more effectively.”
Clark, the north St. Louis resident, said he would like to see the market expand.
“They started something that’s never been done — not around these parts — and it’s a great thing, and it will only get better if they put the time and energy and money into it,” he said.
Dowling has a slightly different goal.
“We always say that our goal is to put ourselves out of business by raising enough awareness of this and getting people engaged enough to open stores in these neighborhoods,” he said. “We have seen a little bit of that. … We are showing that the people in these communities now demand this service.”