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Calgary mobile food market popping up on city campuses

Could campus ramen noodles go the way of the dodo? Well, not likely, but this is a step in the right direction.

Food insecurity on Calgary post-secondary campuses has spurred a new pilot project to bring a mobile food market to Mount Royal University.

The latest of the Community Mobile Food Markets, which provides groceries and fresh produce, began at the start of January and since opening up each Tuesday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Wyckham House food court, demand has near doubled each week.

Calgary’s Fresh Routes operates the mobile market, and said they analyzed areas of need around the city, finding so called “food deserts” and bringing below-market-priced healthy food to serve those customers.

Anna Johnson, co-founder and director of Fresh Routes, which spun off from Leftovers YYC to form its own non-profit social enterprise, said she recalls her own struggles as a student.

“I remember what it was like to be… essentially food insecure and struggling in my undergrad,” said Johnson, an MRU alum and Community Engagement Strategist for the school’s Institute for Community Prosperity.

“It just seemed like an obvious thing for me to suggest to bring it to Mount Royal.”

It’s a three-month pilot run in partnership with the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU), running until the end of March. So far they’ve seen as many as 60 transactions and more than $400 in sales in one market opening. Demand is growing.

“Students are so thankful this pilot is on campus. So many thank you’s and so many people asking if it’s going to stay and how they can help,” said Amber Stallard, Student Development Programmer with SAMRU.

Stallard said having access is important, but the additional benefit is in educating students on proper nutrition.

“Some of these students, especially when you’re living in residence and it’s your first time out in the world without your parents checking in on you – it’s skill development,” she said.

“How do you cook for yourself? What does a healthy meal look like.

“Students really want access to fresh, healthy produce. They’re very health conscious I would say. That demographic is very aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.”

Both Johnson and Stallard said pointed to same factors behind why this operation works at MRU.

Access to a vehicle to go shopping, access to transit to get to a grocer, proximity of grocery outlets and the cost made bringing the mobile market a no-brainer.

“The closest real place for fresh food is West Hills,” Stallard said, also noting many people are getting a week’s worth of groceries for around $10.

“But if you don’t have a car, city transit is a little bit of a difficult process to get there.”

Johnson is hoping to do further research into food insecurity on campus, saying she sees a direct correlation with student well being.

“If you’re looking at a student and analyzing that system around the student and what supports they have, the food aspect of it plays such a huge role on so many different parts of that system,” she said.

“How well they perform in school, how well they sleep at night, do they exercise, how is their mental health. Nutrition plays such a huge role. We want to build awareness around that.”

Fresh Routes also has a location at Bow Valley College’s campus – one Johnson said is their busiest location. They are also in talks with the University of Calgary and Ambrose University to set up markets there.

The markets are open to anyone, not just students. They just felt this was an area that could use another food option. And they were right.

“We’ve doubled almost every single week,” said Johnson.

“As for our need being validated – absolutely it’s being validated.”

You can follow the Community Mobile Food Market on Twitter @FreshRoutes and on Instagram at @FreshRoutesInc