From Eat Streets to Food Deserts: Nonprofits aim to fix a broken food system in the Twin Cities

The interior of the Twin Cities Mobile Market buses are lined with shelving, coolers, and produce // Photo by Harrison Barden

The interior of the Twin Cities Mobile Market buses are lined with shelving, coolers, and produce // Photo by Harrison Barden

A thriving, nationally recognized food scene is one part of living in the Twin Cities. So is the troubling existence of food deserts in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

We’re surrounded by fertile farmland. We’re a recognized destination for creative chefs and adventurous diners. Yet while it may seem that the Twin Cities would be a place that feeds all its citizens well, we’re actually falling woefully short, says Leah Porter, director of Twin Cities Mobile Market, a social enterprise of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

“Our food system is broken, plain and simple,”

– Leah Porter

“Our food system is broken, plain and simple,” she says. “We have a robust food scene here in the Twin Cities, but we’re at the bottom of most rankings for health inequities between white and nonwhite residents, and we’re the country’s seventh largest urban food desert.” A food desert is an area which lacks access to a full-service grocery store or supermarket, often low-income areas of cities. Not surprisingly, those who live in these areas have poorer health compared to non-desert neighborhoods, and they also have higher concentrations of residents who suffer from chronic health conditions.

Twin Cities Mobile Market

One of the Twin Cities Mobile Market buses in downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Harrison Barden

One of the Twin Cities Mobile Market buses in downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Harrison Barden

Like a rolling oasis moving through this desert, Porter and her team have retrofitted two city busses that operate almost like old-fashioned bookmobiles for fresh, healthy food. They make weekly scheduled stops at 33 locations in St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Our first market began in 2014, and we added our second unit in April of this year,” she says. “Our goal is to start work on retrofitting a third bus, and we’ll continue to expand as long as there is a need. We have a waiting list of sites who want to be added to our schedule.”

The mobile markets sell produce, meat, dairy, and dry goods at prices that are below market rates. “People who shop with us have the dignity of choosing what they want at very affordable prices,” she says. “You can’t live on produce you buy once a month. We’re here year-round for them, because the mobile markets operate on a regular schedule, the staff and volunteers get to know our customers very well. It’s grassroots community-building as well as a way to get nutritious food out to people who otherwise lack access to it.”

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Shoppers on the Twin Cities Mobile Market bus // Photos by Harrison Barden

Help: “We’re always looking for volunteers to work a shift on the bus,” Porter says. “You can work the same stop each week and get to know the shoppers and the community. We ask for a commitment of just one one-hour shift per month.”

Donate:, select Twin Cities Mobile Markets from dropdown menu

Porter’s Nonprofit Shout Outs:Appetite for Change and their Northside Fresh Coalition are working to change the entire food system in North Minneapolis by educating youth, supporting local farmers, and conducting convenience store makeovers,” she says. Also on her radar: Youth-run Green Garden Bakery, which sells vegetable-based desserts; Urban Roots, a youth development organization with an emphasis on gardens and nutrition; and the Shared Ground Farmers’ Cooperative.


Sisters Camelot

People gathered outside the Sisters Camelot bus // Photo courtesy of Sisters Camelot FB

People gathered outside the Sisters Camelot bus // Photo courtesy of Sisters Camelot FB

Celebrating its 20th year of operation, this collective, volunteer-run organization operates a food share bus and a vegetarian kitchen bus, both of which offer free, no-questions-asked food and meals throughout the area. “We pick up food from a warehouse, drive through the city, and open our doors to anyone who wants to come in,” says Alana Bliss, a collective member. The food share bus carries items that might be nearing their expiration dates or produce that’s perfectly edible, but less than beautiful.

“It’s food that otherwise would be thrown away, but we’ve been able to transform a waste stream into a resource,” she explains. “There might be cans whose labels have fallen off, a box of berries with one bad piece of fruit, or just an incorrect order. We have fruits and vegetables, boxed foods, and canned goods. Turtle Bread donates bread and pastries.” Bliss, like Porter, is troubled by the inequities she sees in the Twin Cities: “I think there is enough food for everyone and that everyone can be fed, but we have so much work to do in terms of education and awareness.”

The food share bus is on the streets twice a week in winter and three times weekly in summer. “We operate mostly in North and South Minneapolis and in St. Paul,” Bliss says. “We drive into food desert areas and just open up the doors. It’s a ‘random acts of kindness’ philosophy. You can’t miss us. We’re a brightly painted bus with the words ‘Free Organic Food’ painted on the side.”

Help: “We have a great crew of volunteers for our garden and for the bus, and we’re always happy to add to our team,” Bliss says. Contact [email protected]


Bliss’ Nonprofit Shout Outs: “I love the work being done by Project Sweetie Pie and by Open Arms,” she says. “Another great organization is Spark-Y, which sets up aquaponic systems in schools.”


Dream of Wild Health

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Photos courtesy of Dream of Wild Health

Here’s one food fact Joy Persall wants you to know: Fry bread is not an indigenous food. “Our communities were given commodities like flour, fat, and cheese when we were colonized, and we had to eat things like fry bread in order to survive,” says the executive co-director of Dream of Wild Health, one of the longest continually operating Native American organizations in the Twin Cities. “Our healthy traditional foods were replaced with government rationed commodity foods, and we’ve suffered serious health consequences as a result. Native peoples’ bodies are longing for traditional foods.”

Persall’s organization educate its community about healthy, indigenous foods while making those foods affordable and accessible. “Our mission is to decolonize our food system and connect Native people back to indigenous foods to rebuild the health of the Native American community,” she says.

The organization operates a 10-acre farm in Hugo, Minnesota, and it’s the hub of youth programing that reconnects Native American urban youth with traditional native plants and their culinary, medicinal, and spiritual use. Food grown on the farm is sold at farmers markets throughout the Twin Cities.

“We’re not only growing seeds, we’re growing our future leaders,” Persall says. “We want our kids to make different choices that can reverse the effects of generations of historical trauma.”

“We’re not only growing seeds, we’re growing our future leaders,”

– Joy Persall

The food being grown and distributed within the community will “heal the Earth and ourselves in the process,” Persall says. Links to the past are being strengthened through the saving of heirloom seeds, such as heritage corn, beans, and squash, which are the ‘Three Sisters’ of the indigenous diet. In addition to indigenous foods, the farm also grows a variety of vegetables, grains, ground cherries, microgreens, and edible nasturtiums. “We sell our fresh produce to Native chefs, such as The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, and they use these foods in the dishes they create.”

Help: “We have volunteer Fridays on our farm during the growing season, and we welcome groups and individuals,” Persall says.


Persall’s Nonprofit Shout Outs: “The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is doing inspiring work by deeply connecting Hmong people to their traditional agriculture,” she says. “The Wozupi Tribal Gardens and Farmers Market, owned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is not only growing food, but is also raising laying hens, keeping bees, and making maple syrup.”