A Fresh Approach: Freshmobile is both a job and a mission

“Wow!” a woman exclaims when first boarding Madison’s Freshmobile, a grocery store on wheels. “I am truly, truly surprised! I need to tell everyone I know.”

Her husband grins from ear to ear. It’s obvious he couldn’t wait to show her all that the mobile grocery store has to offer. 

Moseying on to the refrigerated items, she remarks that certain items are much less expensive than at Walgreens. 

“See? I told you!” her husband chides her. Excited, they leave without purchasing anything, but promise to return once their FoodShare account is replenished.

Freshmarket driver Paul Borowsky, 53, has seen this reaction before. Each week, Madison’s only mobile grocery visits eight neighborhoods identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food deserts – industrialized areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult or impossible to obtain. 

Allied Drive is one such neighborhood, and was hit particularly hard several years ago when Cub Foods, the only grocery store in the neighborhood, moved out. Now, access to food is limited to Walgreens, nearby gas stations, or McDonald’s.

Yet former Cub shoppers aren’t exactly flocking to the Freshmobile. “The biggest problem I see is that people need to know about us,” Borowsky admitted. “We are trying to address the convenience issue, but it’s still a challenge. Unfortunately, people nowadays are trained that convenience means a recognizable business – or golden arches.”

It’s Tuesday, and the brightly decorated Freshmobile has been parked in front of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County since 10 a.m. It is one of two stops the grocery will make today. 

“Here, we’re up against Walgreens,” Borowsky notes, “but it would be great if we could have this trailer outside of every community center.” Regular visitors often include employees from the Boys and Girls Club.

At 3 p.m., the grocery will open on Traceway Drive, near Leopold School. 

Degrees of change

Borowsky was recently promoted to manager of the Freshmobile Initiative – a dream job for someone with three master’s degrees (educational psychology, social work, and cultural anthropology). He is one of three drivers covering the market’s Monday through Saturday schedule, and when he’s not doing that, he spends a couple weekends a month working as a naturalist for the UW Arboretum. 

An educator at heart, he’s held positions with the Department of Public Instruction, the Madison School District, and MATC, and spent 14 years in adult education with the West Madison Senior Center, until he was laid off. 

One day, after hearing Jeff Maurer, president and owner of Fresh Madison Market, discussing the Freshmobile Initiative on a radio show, Borowsky decided to inquire. He’s been on the job for just over a month, but finds it satisfies many of his personal interests: healthy foods, healthy communities, and education. 

Borowsky’s day started at about 7 a.m. and will continue until about 6:30 in the evening. Each morning, he refuels the vehicle before heading downtown to restock at Fresh Madison Market, and then spends three hours in each neighborhood. In between, he takes a lunch break and restocks as necessary. At the end of the day, he returns the Freshmobile to its overnight parking spot, runs final reports, and locks up.

Because it’s a trailer, not a truck, Borowsky is not required to have a CDL license, though previous CDL experience helps. “Everything is a bigger deal,” he says about driving the vehicle. “When you turn this thing, you need almost two lanes.”

Inside the 34-foot main trailer, the store is surprisingly large. Shelves hold an array of basics – cereals, cake mixes, breads, ingredients, chips, and loads of fresh fruit and vegetables. Two large refrigerator cases include milk, eggs, sandwich meats, a variety of drinks, and even packaged ground beef and pork.

A cash register is located in the rear, behind a flip-up countertop. “We don’t have a lot of cash on board,” he says. Most purchases are made with credit and debit cards, Quest cards (FoodShare program), or WIC checks. (Administered by the federal government, WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children.) 

A small sink in the far corner can be hooked up to a water tank, if necessary, allowing for a temporary flow of hot and cold running water for washing hands. There is no restroom on board.

A cook with restaurant experience on his résumé, Borowsky thoroughly enjoys what he does. “It’s a lot like being at the farmers market. I really like interacting with customers and seeing people appreciate what we have here.” 

And he supports the mission of helping people make wiser food choices (first lady Michelle Obama would be proud of him). “Eating healthier is a good way to save money,” he says. “I get three or four meals out of roasted vegetables, bulgur, and some yogurt sauce. And it tastes good!”

A young Hispanic woman drops in, and $19.95 later, she leaves with three bulging bags of grapes, chips, potatoes, carrots, and apples. “Muy bien,” she smiles, when asked if she enjoys the service.

Borowsky watches her leave. “I took a little bit of Spanish, and it’s time to revisit that,” he says. “Luckily, most people know some English.” 

His personality is well suited to the job. “The grocery business is a people business. Personally, I’m hoping to see real change and consciousness happen,” he says. “My hope is that we’ll one day be part of a paradigm shift [toward a healthier lifestyle], part of a bigger movement. 

“Instead of going to a vending machine, I’d like to see people enjoy healthier foods.”


Breaking Even

Maurer launched the Freshmobile last July as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit, specifically for the purpose of reaching the area’s underserved neighborhoods. Though it is not making money, it has created a lot of buzz nationally, and even worldwide.

“It is not our intent to make money,” Maurer insists. “Maybe we break even, but this is a nonprofit. It is strictly meant to provide a service.” Several people have contacted him hoping to start similar projects in their cities.

Although the vehicle provides convenience on wheels, Maurer insists it is not a convenience store. “You won’t find Charmin here,” he says. And though it stops in the city’s underserved neighborhoods, anyone is welcome. Prices are surprisingly good, thanks to the low overhead, with markups ranging between 20% and 25%, compared to a typical 40% grocery store markup.

For the most part, Maurer is happy with the results. “I heard that people thought we were expensive – maybe because we bring the store to them – and that surprised and really disappointed me. 

“Perception is reality. I went through all that cost and time to make sure we could make things affordable.”

Originally, he presumed the project would attract more customers in winter, when shoppers are less apt to venture far, but that hasn’t panned out. “I’m okay with that,” he insists. “We’ll make a lot of evaluations after the first year.”

He’s satisfied that the Freshmobile – supported by many local business partners – is reaching its intended market. Currently, it is attracting about 200 customers per week (an average of 18 per stop), and records indicate that at least half are using either the WIC check or Quest card.

While awareness is key, he’s also interested in expanding into other neighborhoods. “I’d like to increase the level of services, but I don’t think Madison is large enough to warrant two vehicles.” 

The biggest surprise for Maurer, after a year of temperature extremes, has been the adverse effect weather has on equipment. Still, maintenance costs are right where he thought they’d be, and – knock on wood – diesel prices have remained fairly constant. 

The Freshmobile operates on one carefully maintained generator that runs 24 hours a day, and the inside temperature is kept in the 55- to 60-degree range. “Some say it’s a cold job,” Borowsky says, but being a naturalist has helped. “Luckily, I have a good amount of cold-weather training,” he smiles. This day, with temps in the 30s, is ideal. “It’s cool enough for the veggies, and warm enough for me.”

Just then, a teacher from the Boys and Girls Club steps on board, followed immediately by seven preschool youngsters. “Hands at your sides!” she reminds the brood as they ooh and ahh over the store’s selections, and they oblige. She leaves with $4.45 worth of blueberries and bananas. “I’ll send an assistant over to pay the bill,” she tells Borowsky.

He has no reason to think otherwise, and sets her receipt aside. 

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