AUSTIN — If you build it, they will come.
That’s the idea behind most efforts to eliminate “food deserts:" simply build more grocery stores. But less than a year after launching, a mobile produce program is flipping that theory on its head.
“We’re definitely a lot cheaper than Peapod and we don’t have a delivery fee,” said Mike Hyzy, the director of Crisp! Mobile Produce, which is run by Catholic Charities and funded in part through a USDA grant.
At its core, Crisp! delivers fresh food, mostly fruits and vegetables, to people who live in food deserts — typically defined as areas where residents live more than a mile from a grocery store. According to city data released in 2013, there are more than 75,000 low-income Chicagoans living in these areas.
“We like to make it more accessible,” Hyzy said. “A cheaper product, but that doesn’t mean a worse product.”
Instead of selling produce by weight, like most grocery stores, Crisp! sells by the piece. An avocado sells for 79 cents, a cucumber goes for 59 cents, and a bundle of kale is less than a dollar. To help healthy-cooking rookies, the program sells meal packages that feed a family of four. For $7.49, the bell pepper stir fry package includes a green pepper, a red pepper, an onion, a zucchini, a bag of baby carrots and a bag of rice.
Hyzy said that in order to be able to sell produce at a lower-than-average cost, Crisp! partnered with a local wholesaler.
“It is crisp, it is fresh,” said Jean Inouye, a service coordinator at a senior housing center in Uptown, who recently introduced her residents to Crisp! and buys from the program herself.
“One time, a resident bought ginger and it was like a tree branch,” said Inouye, with a laugh. “You’re really getting a week’s worth of vegetable.”
Inouye said in addition to getting a high-quality product, her residents appreciate the convenience of delivery.
“For our residents, whether they are 100 or 62 years old, it is so much better for them to come here,” Inouye said.
Inouye said of the more than 200 residents in the center, about 15 regularly order from Crisp!.
Hyzy said the program is filling about 25 orders a day — online, over the phone and face to face with the program’s staff — mostly on the south and west sides where food deserts are concentrated. With further targeted outreach and education, Hyzy said he hopes to expand the program beyond Chicago city limits.
“Once the word about Crisp! gets out, I think we’ll be doing a lot more orders daily,” Hyzy said.
For more on Crisp! and its new partnership with the Peace Corner Youth Center in Austin, watch the video.