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SPH’s One-of-a-Kind Grocery Truck

Innovative truck delivers to underserved neighborhoods

| From BU Today | By Amy Laskowski

Sevan Chorluyan (SAR’11, SPH’12) and seven School of Public Health classmates run the grocery truck Bell Tower Foods. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Sevan Chorluyan can be found most mornings perusing the stalls of the hectic Chelsea Produce Market when most people are still asleep. By 5:45 a.m., the intrepid shopper is on the hunt for ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and sweet grapes—fresh produce that will make its way later that day to some of Boston’s poorest and most underserved neighborhoods via a grocery truck bearing the name Bell Tower Foods. The truck is the brainchild of Chorluyan (SAR’11, SPH’12) and seven School of Public Health classmates.

“It’s exhausting, but at the same time rewarding,” admits the 23-year-old Chorluyan. “I wake up at five, shop for about an hour and a half, stock the truck, and try to take a nap. By noon, I’m at my first location, and I drive around until dinner.”

Chorluyan and his colleagues first unveiled their idea for a grocery store on wheels at last April’s Food for Health Business Plan Competition, run by New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The BU team placed second out of 18 graduate school teams, and that substantiation, says Chorluyan, gave them the confidence to proceed with their plan.

The idea for the mobile food truck initially grew out of a policy paper on how to address the unchecked problem of obesity in the United States that Chorluyan wrote for a class. He had read studies reporting that people were more likely to eat healthily when they had easy, affordable access to a grocery store.

“My first thought was to invest in a grocery store, but they are really expensive, so I thought about the food truck craze,” he says. “A few months later we entered the business competition, and it was validation that we could take the idea to the next level and start the business.”

Funding for Bell Tower Foods initially came from the students’ families and friends, but their innovative approach has since helped them gain the attention of local investors. They bought a big used delivery truck off Craigslist this summer and built shelves and installed coolers inside. They also had to learn how to drive the truck through city streets. The team spent countless hours reaching out to the heads of apartment buildings, community centers, and schools to pitch the truck idea and request permission to park outside their buildings once a week. (“If you own a building in Boston, I’ve probably called you,” Chorluyan says sheepishly.)

Officially launched in October, the truck now makes weekly stops in neighborhoods like Mission Hill, East Boston, Forest Hills, and Roxbury Crossing, and Chorluyan says they hope to expand to more neighborhoods.

The goal of Bell Tower Foods is to make it easier for residents living in neighborhoods that have been designated “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to do a “fresh buy”—purchasing items that go bad quickly, like vegetables and meat. In 2009, the federal agency found that residents of neighborhoods without grocery stores were more susceptible to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. In the Boston area, people who live in Quincy, East Boston, Chelsea, Lynn, and Revere oftentimes have to choose between traveling long distances to shop for healthful foods or walking to nearby convenience stores that frequently stock mostly processed foods.

In addition to vegetables and fruit, the truck sells items like bread, milk, eggs, and cheese. Prices are comparable to those found in grocery stores, says Chorluyan, which allows the program to be self-supporting. And Bell Tower Foods recently started accepting food stamps, making it even more accessible for the customers it serves.

For cofounder Natasha Neal (SPH’12), Bell Tower Foods has allowed her to draw on her undergraduate business degree. “It’s a huge learning process and a test of time management,” Neal says. “We have to balance this endeavor with grad school, part-time jobs, learning the business laws and policies, and speaking to the right people so you can go to new locations. It’s been challenging, but fun.”

Neal considers herself lucky that she lives within walking distance of a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, and a Shaw’s. While access to healthful food has never been an issue for her, she says that driving the truck through Boston has given her a new awareness of the access issues so many people face.

“We get stopped at every location by someone in the neighborhood telling us what a great idea this is or suggesting where we could park next,” Neal says. “It has been so rewarding to see customers’ positive reactions.”

On a recent afternoon, Chorluyan parked the truck in the playground of Dorchester’s Mather Elementary School. Waiting for customers, he stuffed his hands in his pockets to keep warm and rearranged produce. Once the school bell rang, curious kids streamed out of the building and approached the truck with their parents. A few bought apples and bananas and asked Chorluyan how often the truck would be parked there this year.

One of the shoppers in line was a young mother purchasing five oranges for her daughter. “It’s great to have this truck out here after school,” she said. “There’s nothing else like this over here to buy a snack that isn’t a Twinkie.”

Science teacher Stephen Ferguson (above) was next in line. He picked out a small white onion, three pounds of tomatoes, four cucumbers, and a big bag of grapes, and Chorluyan packed everything into plastic bags.

“I’m doing some food shopping for my wife here instead of trekking to Shaw’s,” Ferguson explained. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the truck parked outside the school, but it’s great that the kids are seeing apples and oranges for sale instead of candy and soda.”

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