Behind the wheel of a trolley named Molly, Amelia Pape is bringing the grocery store to Portlanders in need.
One in six Oregonians lacks access to affordable, nutritious food, a predicament Pape, SPA/BA '05, is trying to change. She's the founder of My Street Grocery, a mobile market that offers meat, dairy products, pantry staples like peanut butter and pasta, and a rainbow of seasonal produce—corn, cantaloupe, plums, peppers, avocados, asparagus—to low-income residents of underserved neighborhoods in the state's largest city. Four days a week, Pape or one of her colleagues steers Molly, painted the same shade of green as the pines that line the city, to Portland health clinics with whom she's partnered to provide patients with prescriptions for an apple a day. (Or kale, or hummus, or 100 other, mostly organic, offerings.)
The food Rx program is the first of its kind in the Rose City—and it's getting results. More than 90 percent of food prescriptions are redeemed (drug prescriptions average 60 percent, nationally) and recipients, many of whom have diet-related chronic illnesses, report shrinking waistlines and fewer cases of depression.
"I work part-time and don't have a whole lot of extra money, so I have to be very careful with what I do have," says a regular named Tim. "I sometimes get to the end of the month and don't have fresh vegetables. So this is nice. Last time I was here I bought mainly vegetables. It makes my food stamps go much further."
Pape set out to tackle food insecurity, a cause near and dear to her heart: like 51 percent of Oregon youngsters, she was on the reduced lunch program as a kid. But soon enough, she discovered her project wasn't even about hunger alleviation anymore. "It was more than me, more than My Street Grocery, more than the food we brought," she said during a PDXTalks event last fall sponsored by Portland State University. "It was bonds being formed. It was community being created.
"Food is the hook, but community is the glue."
Pape, who describes herself as an "accidental entrepreneur," came up with the idea for a mobile grocery service in business school at Portland State in 2009. Tasked with finding and fixing a market failure, she turned to her personal passion: food. After reading up on food deserts—communities with a corner store but no full-service grocery store with fresh offerings—she was convinced this was a health issue that the right kind of business could fix.
"Not all market failures are social problems," she says, "but many social problems are market failures."
Pape focused her MBA work on social enterprise, businesses that make money but also make the world a better place. Along the way, she researched the mobile grocery concept and entered it in a business plan competition. She walked away with some prize money, and a revelation: "this is what I wanted to do."
A market on wheels was an unorthodox approach for the grocery business, so there weren't a lot of examples of how it might work. Nevertheless, Pape kept driving forward, encouraged by what she considers the most helpful advice she ever received: "the best thing I could do for my business was to start it."
Along with her competition prize money, the concept also netted about $13,000 from a Kickstarter pitch that surpassed its target goal. "This business that I had dreamed would be for the community was built and invested in by the community," she says, "and that felt really right."
Pape put the seed money toward an old bread truck, and in 2012 she hit the road. "It was my goal to start this business, learn about it, bootstrap it, and never have the mission be jeopardized," she says. But after a year, Pape wanted to do more and decided it was time to look for an investor. She knew it would be difficult to find someone willing to put money behind a for-profit enterprise that wasn't solely focused on the bottom line. She turned to a member of her advisory board who was in the leadership of Whole Foods Market to get some advice about how to find a partner who would respect the mission.
The answer was basically: you're looking at him. Whole Foods had been eager to help the business grow, but it was important to them that Pape initiate the partnership.
She drew up a formal proposal. Then, knowing that panel interviews are an important part of the Whole Foods culture, she asked for one and wrote her own job description, spelling out exactly what she wanted. They agreed. With that, Pape became Whole Foods' inaugural food access coordinator—and My Street Grocery became its first-ever mobile market.
At the top of Pape's to-do list: buy a trolley. After a year of driving a bread truck she learned that she needed a vehicle that would allow people to step inside while they shopped. Portland is a rainy city, and a grocery store that's only open on sunny days wouldn't make a big enough difference in the lives of her food-insecure customers.
The trolley also allowed her to offer more than produce. She recognized that people leave home not necessarily when the fruit bowl is empty, but when they run out of milk, bread, and eggs. To carry a more diverse array of foods, Molly is equipped with refrigerators and freezers, offerings for pantry building, and "a whole bunch of beautiful fresh produce," all in a warm, dry, mobile shop.
The natural gas-powered trolley that once shuttled tourists around Fort Worth, Texas, now parks near Portland schools and clinics. Although Pape has partnerships with social service agencies, healthcare providers, and faith-based organizations that have deep relationships with the community, everyone's welcome at the market. Kids grow wide-eyed when they see Molly cruising through Nob Hill or Slabtown, and people of all ages wave. Pape has even driven the trolley in a neighborhood parade.
That familiarity helps everyone feel welcome at My Street Grocery, which Pape now sees as vital to improving access in a state that's historically had one of the highest rates of food insecurity. (Oregon was the ranked the hungriest state in the union when the US Department of Agriculture began releasing reports on the topic in the late 1990s.) "We have a mantra: food is community," she says. There's even a sign with that slogan on the trolley, tailor made for selfies.
As she deepens relationships in the same neighborhoods where she launched the business, Pape increasingly sees her success as part of a larger social enterprise movement.
She's given classroom talks and keynote addresses on social enterprise, and serves on the advisory board for a Portland incubator program that helped her early on. When other aspiring mobile groceries around the country have reached out, Pape's been happy to offer advice—along with a Kickstarter pledge—and her formal consulting has boosted clients from Canada to India to Vietnam. "If we can find ways to use business to solve the world's intractable social problems, that's the biggest win-win [of all]," she says.
As Pape has discovered, bringing food into a community with limited access isn't the end—it's just the beginning.