UNT Dallas Toyota Mobile Market event

Ples Montgomery IV and his mother Betty have been tackling food insecurity and the devastating health effects it can have on southern Dallas residents – and particularly children -- for years.

“The main problem is access, the lack of quality grocery stores with quality-grown fresh produce,” said Montgomery IV, the executive director of the family business and grassroots community service called The Oak Cliff Veggie Project.

Efforts by local growers of fresh produce to distribute nutritional foods to those who either lack access to grocery stores or the transportation to get to one, received a significant boost Wednesday with the launch of the Fresh Food Mobility Market initiative. This critical partnership involves the University of North Texas at Dallas, Toyota, DART and forward-thinking community members who have cultivated their own small farms in the absence of neighborhood grocery stores.

The program will deploy a low-emission bus provided by DART and reinvented as a mobile market by a select group of UNT Dallas students, along with students from Cedar Valley College, to bring fresh, locally sourced produce directly into neighborhoods in southern Dallas.

UNT Dallas President Bob Mong, who announced a $268,000 grant by Toyota to fund the project during Wednesday’s press event and free farmers market, called the launch of the program a “historic day for the University of North Texas at Dallas.”

“We also realize that nothing worthwhile can ever be accomplished without others. And today is a shining example of this,” Mong said.

Dallas County is 20.6 percent food insecure, well above the national average of 14.9 percent. Moreover, food insecurity in children is a staggering 26.6 percent in Dallas County, above the national average of 22.4 percent. A lack of nutritious food can lead to a variety of mental and physical health issues such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

A significant number of southern Dallas residents live in areas without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. These regions are known as food deserts, where residents are all too often reliant on fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

“If we can help connect the community to fresh produce and healthy food, we can help fuel a young person’s development, learning and progress toward adult success,” said UNT Dallas biology professor Dr. Kelly Varga, whose work in a southern Dallas neighborhood gained the attention of Toyota as it seeks to advance its own mobility strategy. “The project nurtures social mobility through wholesome meaningful education and outreach.”

The Toyota grant will also fund scholarships for five UNT Dallas students who will work on this three-semester project. Two of the students, Stephanie Rivas and Charmaine Stewart, are from the School of Business, while Darnell Davis, Kayla Briggs, Hunter Marion, are part of the STEM program.

“This program allows myself and others to be a part of building our community. We’re also addressing an issue that affects so many -- and that is hunger,” Stewart said. “As students, not only are we giving back to the community, we’re also gaining knowledge that will assist us in our careers.”

For UNT Dallas School of Business Dean Dr. Karen Shumway, participating in the mobility program is a 25-year vision that has come to fruition.

“In 1993 as a doctoral student, I started down the path of speaking about ethics and social responsibility in a business school and in a business setting,” Shumway said. “At that time, I did not get a lot of support for my vision. I was told that businesses and business schools don’t care.

“Guess what?” Shumway said. “It’s a lot of years of later, but we are proving with this project that businesses and business schools do care.”

The mobile market bus is expected to launch in the spring of 2019 and begin selling fresh fruits and produce in southern Dallas communities.

Montgomery believes the UNT Dallas program will make a significant impact.

“The fact that there are more fast-food restaurants on the corners, and nobody can get to fresh produce to cook in their own homes with their families, and to know how they’re supposed to cook food, to know what the food looks like when it’s originally grown, this program and our program, that’s what we help to alleviate,” Montgomery said.

“This will provide that level of access, and educate people in the ways of preparation and cultivating their own food so that they can provide for themselves.”