A Look at Amarillo’s New Mobile Farmers Market
Rows of green produce welcome visitors to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church—or, at least, the garden behind it. Leafy arugula and bright red radishes look ready to eat. Things are growing in this urban farm near the West Hills neighborhood, thanks to hard-working volunteers led by Mary Emeny of St. Anthony’s Legacy and Redevelopment Corp. (SALARC) and Donna Dorman Madison and Brady Clark of Square Mile Community Development. This group of people loves to make things grow.
This proved an essential trait for a new project: an old travel trailer converted into a farmers market on wheels. The goal of the trailer is to bring healthy food options to underserved parts of Amarillo, including Northeast 24th and Grand, one or two locations in the North Heights, and at least one location in San Jacinto. The project is a joint effort of SALARC and Square Mile.
“We’ll basically have a slimmed-down grocery store,” says Mary Emeny, president of the SALARC board. “We’ll have as much fresh food as we can get, and we’ll have staples,” along with information about community programs like internet access and health screenings.
For now, this collaboration relies on volunteers, but the organizations hope to create new jobs that pay a living wage. They’re working toward a self-sustaining model, where people can purchase their own healthy food at affordable prices.
“There’s something about being able to shop for your own food,” says Donna Dorman Madison, Square Mile’s program director. “Without food, without proper nutrition, we can’t learn. We can’t give our best in our jobs, in our education. It’s just the basics in life.”
The market trailer is an ambitious solution to one of Amarillo’s most important but least talked about issues: local food deserts.
Food deserts are communities with limited access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food—for instance, the produce section of a grocery store—within a certain distance. According to a 2017 USDA estimate, 19 million Americans live in a food desert. It’s not a problem limited to metropolitan or rural areas. It’s a growing issue right here in Amarillo.
What’s the primary cause of this situation? “Grocery stores moving out and not rebuilding,” explains Emeny. Store closures over the past couple of decades have cut off entire neighborhoods from easy access to fresh food, especially for residents who lack their own transportation.
While the term “food desert” suggests a total lack of food, Madison clarifies the phrase. “It’s not correct to say that people lack access to food. They have access to lots of junk. But they lack proper nutrition. They lack fruits and vegetables and things that fuel their bodies and their brains. They lack things they can cook for themselves and their families,” she says.
Brady Clark, Square Mile’s founder and executive director, identifies a grocery store as a fundamental basic in any community. “How do you have a healthy neighborhood, a strong neighborhood, if you don’t have grocery stores?”
For residents who can’t afford a vehicle, public transportation is far from an ideal solution. “It’s insufficient for the need,” says Emeny. “It’s hard to carry a week’s worth of groceries for a family on a bus.” It takes time to navigate a bus route. “With a full-time job and babies at home, there’s no way you can do that.”
Amarillo’s food deserts have persisted for decades without easy solutions. The market trailer, in the works for the past year, might represent a small step in the right direction.
Mary Emeny, a long-time local activist and philanthropist, attended a conference in Oklahoma City in March 2022. There, she witnessed similar trailers as an idea for empowering people living in food deserts, with the same freedom of choice a supermarket provides. Her organization, SALARC, hopes to use local business development to grow community-based wealth.
Meanwhile, Madison and Clark of Square Mile are always looking for opportunities to serve under-resourced neighborhoods. Established in 2016, Square Mile focuses on encouraging local businesses and addressing food insecurity. Brady Clark also serves on the board of SALARC. The two organizations partnering on this new concept seemed ideal.
Plus, Brady owned a travel trailer. Square Mile had considered using it as a mobile farm stand, but it had been sitting in storage. “We had all these other projects going, and the trailer went on the backburner,” he says. It wasn’t in great shape. SALARC and Square Mile needed a potential grocery trailer to be welcoming and—most importantly—food-safe. They needed someone up for the challenge.
The Handy Ma’am
“If Brady Clark asks you for coffee, decline,” jokes Crys Tidwell. “They said, ‘Hey, we have this great idea for taking this mobile farmers market to the food deserts.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea. You should definitely do that.’ They said ‘No, we want you to build it out.’ And I said, ‘No, thank you.’”
Despite her protests, they insisted Tidwell was the go-to person for the job. “She’s the go-to person for a lot of stuff,” says Emeny.
Tidwell owns and operates Handy Ma’am Home Repair, where she handles everything from minor repairs to full-scale remodels. Despite her experience, the travel trailer presented a new set of challenges. It was like working on a house, but without the same standards.
“I learned this the hard way,” she says. “It’s not like a home where the studs are 24 inches on center or 16 inches on center. They just put studs wherever they need them. If there’s a cabinet going up in the shell, they just put in studs for the cabinet. If there’s a door, they frame around the door.”
After gutting the trailer down to the shell, Tidwell built new floors, walls and a ceiling. The trailer now houses brand-new lighting, counters, storage and wiring. There’s a retractable awning and a generator to power refrigeration. The transformation, which took Tidwell six weeks to complete, has to be seen to be believed. She received help along the way from people like Dan Zwinck, Tammy Breitbart, Vanessa Beach, Gregg Dickey, and Tidwell’s wife, Ann Cobb-Tidwell.
“Crys does not like to toot her own horn,” says Madison. “She’s exceedingly talented. The trailer is now ready to move and hold food, including cold storage and dry storage.” Meanwhile, Clark coordinated with the city to establish safe and responsible operating procedures. “It’s a challenge for any small food-based business to be fully compliant, especially when you have a project that’s outside of the box,” he says. “There’s not a template for this. People say, ‘We want to help make this happen.’ But we have to do it right.”
Square Mile and SALARC’s previous successes opened doors. “We’ve been fortunate to have good relationships with the city,” says Clark. “We’ve worked together in a lot of great ways. We want to make it a win-win for everybody.”
A solution emerged: Consider the trailer a farmers market on wheels. This overlapped with Square Mile’s original plan to sell produce from their community farms. But the farms couldn’t cover all the food requirements for this project. For the mobile farmers market to move forward, they needed serious help.
This summer, businesses across the High Plains have committed to working together to make the mobile farmers market a reality. Market 33 provides access to wholesale distributors for nutritious produce and healthy staples. Pepsi has donated refrigerators and freezers to keep everything fresh. A local supplier is donating high-quality Panhandle protein, including wagyu beef. Once the mobile farmers market begins making its stops, media partner KAMR will use airtime to announce a schedule and locations in English and Spanish.
Then there’s St. Peter’s Episcopal. Along with hosting one of Square Mile’s farms, St. Peter’s acts as the trailer’s homebase, providing a safe place to restock between stops.
Even with this level of engagement, there is still plenty of room to help. Emeny, Clark and Madison all insist that the market trailer isn’t completely finished. There’s still plenty of ways people in Amarillo can help.
While future plans involve accepting fresh produce from farmers and gardeners, right now, the trailer needs funding and volunteers as the partners launch what they hope can be a model for future programs.
“This is part of our vision to build stronger long-term transformation for neighborhoods that need it the most,” says Clark. “We want to help our older neighborhoods have a chance to thrive and be successful, to really utilize the talent and gifts that are in there. We want to let them shine and have an opportunity to grow.”