Photo displays two workers outside of a bright green food ruck with cartoon vegetables on the truck
The Curbside Groceries staff, DeJuan Mason and Gerald Williams help shoppers fulfill their orders. Photo courtesy of Aja Beckham.

This story was first published by DCist on March 24.

A bright green truck painted with fruits and vegetables is hitting the road, stocked with fresh foods for Ward 8 families who have only one grocery store to serve 80,000 residents. Curbside Groceries, a mobile grocer, commutes to seven designated locations in Ward 8 each week to provide residents with more than 100 produce, meat, fish, baking, and condiment options. The grocer seeks to create access to fresh and quality food at an affordable price and address transportation barriers by bringing those groceries to convenient locations in the community. Shoppers may pay with cash, debit, credit and electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards.

The mobile grocer started in January 2020, but manager of Curbside Groceries DeJuan Mason says the service is even more essential during the pandemic, because of cuts to Metrobus service. Many residents don’t have a car to drive to the grocery store and have had to take public transportation. Curbside wants to shorten that commute time by parking near schools, recreation centers, and housing complexes.

“The sites that we go to, we provide you better access so you don’t have to get on the A2 or the W1 [buses] and carry 12 bags of groceries to get home,” says Mason.

The Capital Area Food Bank created Curbside Groceries — which the organization has dubbed “the food store that comes to you” — with money from a sizable 2019 grant. The organization asked 2,000 D.C.-area residents about food access, desired food options, shopping experiences at local grocers, and commute times. Ninety percent of respondents were interested in buying groceries and cooking if the store were within walking distance from home or school, and if options were affordable. From the survey and data in this hunger heat map (tinyurl.com/cafb-hunger-heat-map), Curbside Groceries was formed.

Since January 2020, Curbside Groceries has seen almost 1,300 customers, Mason said. On a busy day, Curbside Groceries sees about 20 to 25 customers at each Ward 8 site, according to Radha Muthiah, CEO and president of the Capital Area Food Bank.

The truck has had to make some adjustments over the past year. For a few months during the earlier months of the pandemic, the truck temporarily stopped running to follow farmers market guidelines. Also, shoppers now stand outside the truck while Curbside employees retrieve their items from inside, to avoid crowding.

One of Curbside Groceries’ regular stops is Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School. The school reopened for in-person learning last week, allowing 150 students in Pre-K through 4th grade to return to school, said Will Stoetzer, CEO of the school.

One parent picking up their child, Hazen Harris, had not heard about the mobile grocer until she received a flyer from one of the Curbside staff who canvass the area where the truck is parked to inform residents about the service.

Harris is vegan and typically orders her groceries online because she doesn’t have a car to commute. She noted that the local grocer is usually out of stock because so many people shop there.

“When you go in, there’s a lot of stuff they don’t have and half of the time it’s not fresh and it doesn’t last long,” said Harris, 35. “[The produce] is damaged [and] it doesn’t look like it’s worth buying.”
She plans to shop on the truck in the future and thinks the community needs it.

“Having the truck here is a good thing, especially for this area. This area needs different stuff, so it’s a good thing, and I’m looking forward to going to it,” said Harris.

Another mom of two boys, Tajea Banks, 32, said that it’s her first time seeing the truck and she plans to shop there in the future. Banks said it’s typical for her shopping trip to include driving to two different grocers — one in Southeast and another in Maryland — because items are often out of stock at one store or the other.

Banks, who uses an EBT card to pay for groceries, was laid off by Busboys and Poets in Anacostia last June, due to the pandemic. She said that she hasn’t gone back to work because she did not have anyone to look after her children during virtual learning.

She commented that stores may be out of stock because many residents also use EBT.

“It might be that everybody gets their food stamps at the same time, so they all go [to the store] at the same time,” said Banks.

One teacher, Patrick Bentley, said that when the truck first came to Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School last year, there were lines wrapped around the truck.

“There would be lines after school of students trying to get something from the truck, whether it was an apple. Just something to take home,” he said.

Muthiah said she’s glad that children and families are buying healthy options from the truck.

“I was very heartened when we reviewed our data on what’s sold each week off of Curbside, we see that consistently fruits and vegetables topped the charts,” said Muthiah. “And that’s really terrific because the intent is to provide healthy, nutritious food as a real viable alternative when people decide where to spend a dollar or two.”

Muthiah said she hopes to see the same in other areas as Curbside Groceries expands to other locations.

This summer, there will be another Curbside truck to reach Prince George’s County shoppers. Currently, Curbside does not have plans to expand to Ward 7. Muthiah said there is greater need in Prince George’s County, based on data from the survey and hunger heat map.