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Health, Science & Tech

Can Food Trucks Help Solve Pittsburgh's Food Desert Dilemma?

Food trucks are commonplace in cities such as Los Angeles or New York, but Pittsburgh has had a hard time embracing the mobile eateries.

All that could change with Farm Truck Foods.

Awesome Pittsburgh, which gives grants to people "with brilliant ideas," this week awarded the company $1,000 for its proposed solution to the city’s food desert dilemma.

According to the USDA, a food desert is an “urban-neighborhood and/or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” There are seven in the Pittsburgh region: Clairton, East End, Hilltop, McKees Rocks, Millvale, North Side and Stowe, according to a study by Just Harvest.

Farm Truck Foods co-founder Michelle Lagree said a mobile farmers market could be a fresh foods oasis for these communities.

“The mobile market will help to go into those towns that are food deserts, set up shop, and be able to actually move if needed throughout the community to make sure that the community members are getting the nutrition that they need,” she said.

Lagree, a registered dietitian, said the truck will deliver fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs, dairy products, meat, and canned-goods.

She said the company is utilizing social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, to share food facts and recipes.

“We’ll have a vast variety of things to help educate the customers,” she said. “Through free samples, they can actually try maybe a new fruit and vegetable they’ve never had before.”  The educational component of the company is to be nonprofit, while the food sales would be for profit.

Unlike a traditional farmers market, the truck hopes to operate year round and will accept SNAP, or food stamp, payments.

“Our model will be different than a farmers market, in that, we know that, of course, everyone eats even when the farmer season ends,” Lagree said. “So, we’ll be doing it year-round to help people get food on their plate all year.”

Lagree said the $1,000 grant will go towards “retro-fitting” a truck with shelving, refrigerators, and eventually, a wheelchair ramp. That is, when the company actually gets a truck.

Right now, Farm Truck Foods still needs to raise about $45,000 before they can get a truck and hit the streets. The start-up is taking donations online and hopes to be on the road by June.

But money isn’t the only roadblock for Farm Truck Foods.

The city’s street vendor regulations could impede the truck’s success. Currently, the law prevents trucks from staying in one location for more than 30 minutes and restricts operation hours.

Lagree said she’s working to amend those regulations.

“Food trucks are something that are so popular in other cities,” she said. “They just haven’t reached our city just yet, and we’re actually working with Bill Peduto’s group to try to get the laws changed for the food trucks.”