Mitigating Food Insecurity With Mobile Grocery Markets

Food insecurity—inconsistent access to nutritious food to meetdaily needs—has been a persistent problem in the United States for years. In 2020, the U.S. witnessed an alarming increase in food insecurity, affecting millions, including vulnerable children. Food insecurity gives rise to numerous challenges and can be a cause of unhealthy eating habits and diet-related diseases. In Minnesota, where approximately 900,000 people, including 200,000 children, lack sufficient access to healthy food, the issue of food insecurity poses a significant concern. One cause of food security is a lack of nearby full-service grocery stores. This is a particular concern in Minnesota, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most other states.

Over the past decade, mobile markets have emerged as a means for mitigating food insecurity. A mobile market comes in many models, including a full service grocery store in the form of a bus, truck, semi-trailer, or other vehicle, typically outfitted with refrigeration equipment, that brings affordable, healthy food directly to communities in need. Mobile markets can be particularly helpful for people who do not live close to a full-service brick-and-mortar grocery store and who do not have consistent access to a car. For such individuals, travel to a grocery store may be prohibitively difficult. Mobile markets now operate in dozens of cities across the country.

Since 2015, the non-profit Twin Cities Mobile Market (TCMM), a program of The Food Group, has operated in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. Its impact has been remarkable, with TCMM serving 8,500 customers in 2019 and continuing to make 24 scheduled stops throughout the Twin Cities area. Recognizing the diverse needs of the community, TCMM goes beyond providing fresh produce.

The market also offers culturally connected foods, aimed at Indigenous, Latino, African, and Asian communities, so TCMM ensures that residents from different backgrounds have access to familiar and nutritious food options. Many mobile markets are non-profits, and it is important that they operate efficiently to maintain financial viability. ISyE Assistant Professor Yiling Zhang and Professor William Cooper recognized that the tools and approaches of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Operations Research could be of great value in helping mobile markets improve their operational efficiency while maintaining focus on the core goal of improving food access. With support from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, Professors Zhang and Cooper have been engaging with TCMM to understand some of the challenges faced by TCMM and by mobile markets in general. Professor Zhang noted that “When I first heard about mobile market programs, I thought they were a great idea. I suspected that mobile markets faced interesting and important operations research questions. As I learned more about mobile markets, I found out that was indeed the case.”

Professors Zhang and Cooper are now working with a team of ISyE students that consists of undergraduate students Connor Salsbury and Tina Son, and Ph.D. student Can Yin to employ the quantitative and analytical methods of ISyE to study mobile markets.

One interesting question within their study involves deciding which mobile market stops should be served on a single route while also determining what assortment of products to load onto the vehicle before it departs from its depot. Often, a vehicle will operate on a different route on each day of the week. Depending upon the population demographics near the stops on a particular route, different types of food might be more or less suitable for stocking on the vehicle. “Vehicle routing and assortment planning are classical operations research problems. They intersect in a fascinating and unique way in mobile markets,” notes Professor Cooper.

Decisions about what locations to visit should be informed by estimates of the demand from the nearby community. Several factors may influence that demand, including population- wide measures of demographics, mobility, and income; distances to nearest grocery stores; and availability of community partners to help publicize mobile market services and schedules. How such factors affect demand could be estimated using techniques from statistics and machine learning.

Another interesting question centers on the environmental impacts of mobile markets. A mobile market vehicle emits carbon as it traverses its route. Some customers who make purchases at a mobile market would have otherwise traveled to a store by some other means, including possibly taking a car ride. The replacement of those trips by a visit to the mobile market then reduces emissions, but the question to consider is: What are the net effects and how would they change if a less efficient diesel mobile market vehicle were replaced by a more efficient propane or electric mobile market vehicle? The team has been working on using various ISyE tools to address this question. Connor Salsbury commented that “I found it really interesting that I can use techniques I have learned in Industrial Engineering not just to make a process more efficient, but to show the environmental benefit of a decision.”

Mobile grocery markets represent a powerful response to the challenge of food insecurity. Methodologies from ISyE and Operations Research hold great potential to aid mobile markets in their commitment to serving community needs.

Photos courtesy of The Food Group