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STL MetroMarket bus

If the people can’t go to get fresh produce and healthful food, then the fresh produce and healthful food will go to them. In a bus.

Large swaths of the city of St. Louis and north St. Louis county areas are food deserts — neighborhoods where it is hard to get to a supermarket or large grocery store. But some residents have a way to get the food they need, and at a low cost, by going to the St. Louis MetroMarket.

Which is a bus.

The MetroMarket recently started its third season as a mobile produce and grocery store, stopping at eight locations (up from last year’s three) in some of the areas that most need it.

“We’re here to provide an option, to provide a place to do your shopping and get fresh produce at a reasonable price,” said Lucas Signorelli, the organization’s executive director.

Because it is a charity, the MetroMarket can sell its goods at cost to anyone who wants them (it is open to the public, not just people who are low on funds). Money for the operating costs — staff salaries, insurance, fuel for the bus — comes from community members, grants and donations.

Seed money from the Incarnate Word Foundation and a bus donated by Metro got the whole thing rolling, so to speak. Word-of-mouth and stories in the media have brought out the crowds.

Monica Penny stepped on board for the first time on a recent Friday when she picked up her grandson, Marcus, from Moline Elementary School.

“These strawberries look good,” she said, eyeing a one-pound container for $2.

“Those strawberries are good,” said Mike Mantia, one of the bus’s workers, who has spent his career in the produce business.

It’s not just the strawberries. Avocados were selling for 50 cents. So were pears, plantains and green peppers. Red bell peppers were fetching $1.

More than 100 kinds of food are crammed into every corner of the bus (a van parks next to it, acting as a kind of mobile stockroom), and the majority of them are varieties of fresh produce. And the non-perishable items are not off-brands, either. They have everything from Newman’s Own marinara sauce for $3.49 and Mrs. Renfro’s salsa for $2.50 to a huge box of Cheerios for $1.99.

When former president Bill Clinton stopped in last November, he purchased a bag of Kaldi’s Coffee and an STL MetroMarket T-shirt.

This year, the market makes its two-hour stops at eight locations each week, such as the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson, the Affinia Health Centers in College Hill and Soulard, and the St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters in Jeff-Vander-Lou.

The bus pulls up to Moline Elementary School on Friday afternoons (at least during the school year) through the efforts of principal Lisa Thompson, who heard about it at a meeting devoted to improving community health and wellness. She went to see it for herself and was taken by the possibilities it raised.

The students had planted a garden, and showing them the produce in the bus was an opportunity for them to see what the final product would look like (the vegetables they planted would ripen in the summer, when they were out of school). And it would also be a great chance to bring fresh foods to the students, faculty and neighbors.

“I got three apples and a (loaf of) bread,” said first-grader Aniyah Hale, who shopped on the bus with her father.

Jacquelyn Sharp, the school’s instructional coach, brought a number of happy students to the bus; they were among the first in line when it opened. “A lot of times they don’t get to experience getting fresh produce at the neighborhood store. We want them to eat healthy,” she said, as the students eagerly paid for apples, nuts, beef jerky and veggie chips.

School nurse Yolanda Bond did a little shopping for herself, picking up some fresh turnip greens and strawberries.

“I love it,” she said. “Families like it because if they are unable to get out they can get healthy food at a great price.”

Operating a store on board a bus is not without its hiccups. On the Friday we visited at Moline school, the generator had failed, taking with it the electricity necessary to run the cooler, the freezer and even the cash register. And it can be difficult to judge exactly how much of each item to bring; they could start out the day with a case of collard greens, and two customers with a hankering for the greens could run them out of stock by themselves.

But the joys far outnumber the headaches, and the customers could not be happier.

“It’s an awesome addition to our school district. You have fresh fruits and vegetables,” Penny said. “It’s a store on a bus.”

• For a schedule of where the STL MetroMarket will be stopping, or to learn how to donate to it, go to stlmetromarket.com.

Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.