Alternative Markets

Alternative models refer to nontraditional forms of healthy food retail that are bringing fresh food to residents in underserved communities. In many cases these markets have adopted unique and innovative business strategies to successfully serve consumers. In most cases an alternative model refers to retail enterprises that don’t operate in a brick-and-mortar building. Mobile markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises are umbrella terms that help describe two different models for how retailers and vendors can sell their goods through alternative measures.

Mobile Markets

Mobile markets operate from a truck, van, bus, trailer, or other mobile device. Similar to farmers’ markets, mobile markets can serve various communities on a scheduled or rotating basis. However, given their ability to change locations at a moment’s notice, mobile markets can also serve multiple communities in a short span of time. Mobile markets have gained popularity particularly in rural communities, where access to healthy food is limited and residents must travel long distances to access grocery stores that sell fresh food.

Key Strategies and Resources for Developing Mobile Markets

  • Rely on proven and documented business strategies. Similar to other forms of healthy food retail, mobile markets can benefit from comprehensive business plans. These enterprises can tap into targeted technical assistance programs that advise participants about how to increase their earning potential. Existing small business development training programs can also help mobile markets improve their marketing strategies to increase their profitability.
  • Research existing mobile markets. Mobile markets have taken on many different forms across the country. While strategizing about what type of market can benefit your community, it is important to know how other markets have been successful. The Resource Library includes case studies of mobile markets that have worked across the country.
  • Develop public-private partnerships for funding mobile markets. For more information on these, go to the Public-Private Partnership Primer.
  • Develop financing/funding packages for each mobile market project. For more information on finding funding for your mobile market project go, to Funding

Success Stories

  • Chattanooga Mobile Market: In Tennessee, Chattanooga Mobile Market travels to multiple communities underserved by traditional forms of healthy food retail.
  • Santa Fe’s MoGro Mobile Grocery: In New Mexico, MoGro is a temperature-controlled truck that provides fresh food to several of New Mexico’s tribal communities and offers educational workshops on health, wellness, and sustainable agriculture.
  • Madison’s Freshmobile: In Wisconsin, Freshmobile is a “mini grocery store on wheels.” Freshmobile is stocked daily and can be found in eight different neighborhood locations across Dane County.
  • Arcadia Mobile Market: In Washington, DC, Arcadia's 28-foot mobile farmers’ market delivers local, sustainably produced food to underserved communities across the area.
  • Bridgeport Mobile Market: In Cleveland, this market travels to where people live, work, recreate, and worship, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to communities that lack grocery store access.
  • R&G Family Grocers' Mobile Market: In Oklahoma, the Healthy Community Store Initiative (HCSI) began R&G Family Grocers which does business as the Real Good Food truck, a full-service, mobile grocery store that brings healthy, affordable food to 12 unique and underserved areas of Tulsa. Read more in this Profile
  • Farmshare Austin: In Austin, TX, Farmshare mobile markets make designated weekly stops in neighborhoods that currently lack access to organic fruits and vegetables, both in Austin, including Hornsby Bend, and other parts of Travis County, such as Del Valle.
  • Market Boxx Community Stores: In Milwaukee, WI, a group of African American entrepreneurs  launched a company that works with local entrepreneurs, in partnership with community organizations, to build skills and launch mobile grocery store businesses. Read more in this article here.


Community supported agriculture (CSA) refers to an association of consumers who purchase local food directly from farmers or other agricultural distributors. Typically, a farmer or similar distributor sells shares of their produce to individual customers on a weekly or monthly basis throughout a harvest or growing season. In many communities, this means that customers come to a set pick-up point to collect a box of freshly grown vegetables once a week. Customers usually purchase shares, which constitute a membership or subscription and are used to support the local farmer or agricultural system. This model allows the farmer to receive payments upfront in the season, which pays for the producer's season costs and helps protect against financial loss due to individual crop failure. CSAs are gaining popularity across in the country in rural and urban communities, where access to locally grown food is often limited, because they increase healthy food access, strengthen urban-rural connections, and support regional economies.

Key Challenges to Bringing CSAs to Communities

  • High initial fees. Many CSAs require large lump-sum fees at the beginning of the growing season creating huge barriers for low-income consumer participation.
  • Public benefits are often not accepted. It is challenging for EBT cards to be accepted at CSAs because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which manages the program, is often concerned about the prepayment arrangements that are common for many CSAs. Farmers also worry about administrative challenges of accepting EBT cards.
  • CSA members often do not have control over the amount or type of produce they will receive. CSA members carry the risk of a bad growing season and will receive reduced amounts of produce when weather conditions are extreme. On the other hand, when there is an overabundance of crops, CSA members must find a way to make use of the excess produce. In addition, CSA bundles may contain unfamiliar produce that members must figure out how to prepare.


Key Strategies to Support CSAs

  • Offer reduced-rate membership shares, installment plans, and work shares for low-income households. Many CSAs offer reduced-rate membership shares. For example, the People's Grocery in Oakland, California, has a modified CSA called the Grub Box that offers reduced-price shares subsidized by wealthier members willing to pay a higher price so lower-income members can purchase shares. To meet low-income consumers' needs, CSAs can allow members to pay by the month or even weekly. The Corbin Hill Food Project meets the needs of its customers in Harlem and the South Bronx by offering flexible membership terms.
  • Ensure that CSAs can accept EBT cards. Similar to farmers' markets, CSAs that accept EBT and other benefits from government nutrition programs can attract more customers in low-income communities. Uprising Organic Farm in Bellingham, WA, exclusively serves low-income residents and is able to accept EBT by allowing people to pay for their food when it is picked up, thereby addressing the USDA's concerns about prepayment.
  • Ensure that CSAs can accept WIC and Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program vouchers. Federal food assistance programs such as the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and the WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program can be used to pay for CSAs in a few states such as California, Maryland, New York, and Vermont.
  • The Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategies to Improve Access to Fresh, Healthy Food and Transform Communities report by PolicyLink includes information about CSAs and their potential impact in local communities.

Success Stories

  • Philadelphia's Greensgrow City-supported Agriculture: This CSA sells foods produced by urban farmers in the city to area residents, thereby supporting local agricultural efforts. They also accept SNAP benefits and offer shares to nearby low-income residents through a revolving loan fund created with a local community development financial institution, The Reinvestment Fund. 
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Clagett Farm: This CSA in Maryland offers work shares so that any adult who works four hours or more receives a week's worth of CSA items. In addition to work shares, Clagett Farm also offers reduced-price shares at half price for low-income households or individuals.
  • New York's Just Food: Just Food is a nonprofit organization in New York City that has started CSAs where EBT is accepted. Many of their CSAs offer reduced-rate membership shares, revolving loans, installment plans, sliding-scale share fees, scholarship shares, and work shares to make the CSA more available to low-income consumers.
  • Green City Growers Cooperative: This 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse in Cleveland, Ohio is the largest urban food production greenhouse in the country. Green City Growers sells to nearby grocery stores and wholesale produce businesses. Employees are hired from the local community, can become owners of the business over a period of time, and share in the profits of the company.