On an unseasonably cool mid-July morning, Max Lovato is sampling a pocket-sized meatball next to a mobile grocery truck parked on the west bank of the Rio Grande. The evening before, several of the truck’s volunteers handed out approximately 100 flyers advertising free samples in San Felipe Pueblo, where he lives. The beef Lovato is eating is grass-fed, which is leaner and lower in calories than traditional beef.
Usually, when Lovato does groceries, it requires a half-hour drive to either Bernalillo or Albuquerque. But this morning, he has the option of buying fresh vegetables, produce and grains, among other essential grocery items, from the giant truck beside him.
“We’re thinking about buying a small [packet] of ground beef,” Lovato tells SFR.
It’s part of the many healthy products available at MoGro, a mobile grocery store that aims to provide nutrition and affordable food to New Mexico’s Native American communities. Items include whole-wheat flour, which MoGro sells partly to steer its customers away from the cheaper and less nutritious bleached flour that has been used in many communities for generations, and fresh produce, which accounts for about 45 percent of MoGro’s sales.
To Rick Schnieders, who co-owns MoGro with his wife Beth, the venture is part of a grand vision. He says his truck is an experiment to see if the health problems plaguing Native American communities—diabetes, obesity and heart disease, to name a few—can be eradicated. And to his knowledge, MoGro’s approach is unique.
“In terms of a full-service [mobile grocery]—dry goods and vegetables—as far as we know, there’s nothing like that in the world,” he tells SFR.
At 35 percent, New Mexico’s Native population has the highest obesity rate of any ethnic group in the state (on average, 24 percent of New Mexicans are obese). Native Americans also lead the state in diabetes-related deaths, which has prompted the New Mexico Department of Health to push for urgent intervention to curb the disparity.
Native Americans’ reliance on processed foods such as bleached flour and refined sugar can be traced back more than a century. In the 1890s, about 50 years after forcing Native Americans onto reservations, the federal government barred Native Americans from leaving their reservations to hunt and gather, and instead gave them rations of lard, sugar and flour. Schnieders says much of the rationed food “didn’t work in the DNA of the Native population.”
“Although we see it in the US population in general, we see sometimes triple the rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the Native populations, particularly the young people,” he says. “And that’s real disturbing.”
Schnieders knows food. Originally hailing from Iowa, he recently ended a 27-year career with Sysco Corp., the largest global distributor of food products used in restaurants, schools and other facilities. From 2003 until 2009, he served as the company’s CEO. Following his retirement, he moved to Santa Fe. But both he and Beth knew they wanted to stay active.
The thought of tackling a seemingly unsolvable issue with a familiar solution prompted the start of MoGro.
“We loved New Mexico and wanted to give something back,” Beth tells SFR. “What we know is food.”
If the Schnieders have learned anything from this latest venture, it’s to expect a long, uncertain road ahead. When MoGro debuted in the spring of 2011, groceries were sold outside the truck, which made it hard to keep the sun and the desert dust from spoiling the food. Today, the food is kept inside an air-conditioned atmosphere powered by a 30-kilowatt generator.
But that’s a small hurdle compared to the larger obstacles MoGro faces.
“The hard part we’re always going to fight is tradition,” Clint Begay, the director of San Felipe-based programs for the Notah Begay III Foundation, tells SFR.
The foundation—created by Begay’s older brother Notah, an Albuquerque native and the first full-blooded Native American professional golfer—is one of the many nonprofits that help fund MoGro. Others include the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health and Santa Fe’s La Montañita Co-op.
To date, MoGro 2.0 is only in the second month of its launch, and business has fluctuated. Begay says customer unpredictability illustrates the challenges outsiders face in attempting to change old ways in Native American communities.
“The Indian people have been promised a lot, and it’s not always panned out,” Begay says.
He cites the racetrack by San Felipe’s casino as an example.
“That thing’s been sitting there for over 10 years [and] hasn’t made a dime,” he says.
Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, in late 2009 and early 2010, the Center for American Indian Health surveyed roughly 300 of the 500 households in Kewa Pueblo to see whether they’d be receptive to a mobile grocery store. “They interviewed [families] large and small and found out what their priorities were,” Cynthia Aguilar, a Kewa resident and member of the visioning board at Johns Hopkins, tells SFR.
In the end, 98 percent of those surveyed in her community were receptive to the idea of MoGro. Many also offered ideas about the kind of food the grocery mobile should offer.
But being receptive to an idea and actually participating in it are two different things. Currently, MoGro sells at Kewa, San Felipe, Cochiti and Jemez Pueblos four days of the week during the morning hours. On the same day Lovato tasted the meatball sample, only a few San Felipe residents came to buy food from the truck.
When the weather cools down, Schnieders says he’ll expand MoGro’s hours to include weekday afternoons and two additional communities. At that point, he projects MoGro will bring in about $1.5 million in sales per year—just enough to break even. But he knows he’s still a long way off from that goal.
“MoGro is technically a for-profit entity,” he says, “but it will be a long time before that happens.”
But while sales are unpredictable, MoGro’s careful planning and inclusion of the communities it serves seem to be paying off for its image.
Just an hour before Lovato tasted the meatball, Charlotte Candelaria, another San Felipe resident, bought a few frozen grocery items. Like Lovato, Candelaria normally travels to Bernalillo or Albuquerque to shop for groceries. During the summer, she hauls an icebox on her long drives through the hot desert. But on this day, she didn’t have to worry about food melting in her trunk.
“I have to carry ice to keep everything cool and frozen,” she tells SFR. “So to me, this is very easy.”