Faces of Public Health: Richard Schneiders, Founder of "MoGro"

Jul 8, 2011, 5:19 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


Faces of Public Health is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth featuring individuals working on the front lines of public health and helping keep people healthy and safe. Today’s profile is Richard Schneiders, Founder of MoGro, a mobile grocery truck.



Just a few weeks ago, the “Mobile Grocery,” or MoGro, started up its operations in New Mexico. MoGro is a project aimed at delivering healthy groceries to the Native American communities of New Mexico. The project’s centerpiece is a large, refrigerated truck that brings fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods directly to native communities in the state. The idea for MoGro came from Richard Schneiders, the former C.E.O. of food distributor, Sysco Corp., and his wife, Beth. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Richard Schneiders about the project.

NewPublicHealth: When did the planning start for MoGro?

Richard Schneiders: The planning actually started about three years ago. My wife, Beth and I have had a long relationship with Johns Hopkins University, which is one of our partners for MoGro. We were helping financially on a project that helped young Navajo mothers with prenatal care and with care of their children through age 5. And when that project got permanent funding us all agreed that was the time to really focus on nutrition because it was certainly a huge issue in the Native American community. As you probably know the incidence of diabetes and obesity is three times the U.S. population.

NPH: Did you try any other types of healthy groceries delivery before coming up with the idea for MoGro?

Rick Schneiders: We really didn’t other than going to visit other operations. We looked at other programs throughout the country. But what occurred to us was that most of those programs were limited in terms of the variety of produce they were offering. Another big difference in our program is that MoGro itself is for-profit.

NPH: And for whom is it ‘for-profit?’

Rick Schneiders: Well, first of all, it’s important to know the profit is a very theoretical idea. If everything goes according to plan, within three years we’ll break even. But one of the reasons we went the ‘for-profit‘ route was because we would like to have the communities themselves--in one way or another--invest in the business and we want the communities and the MoGro members to share in whatever profits there might be down the road.

NPH: And the funding now is coming from you and your wife? Or is it coming from other resources as well?

Rick Schneiders: Well, all of the funding for MoGro is coming from my wife and me right now. There are no other investors. However, you may know this but Johns Hopkins is one partner and our operational partner is a New Mexico Co-op chain. They help us with the management of the truck. And Johns Hopkins is responsible for community relations, education programs, promotions and those sorts of things. And obviously, Johns Hopkins is a 501(c)(3) so we have received pretty good funding from a number of foundations now to help on the nonprofit side and the things that Johns Hopkins is doing specifically--the education, promotion, and community outreach.

NPH: How were the choices made for the foods that would be on the trucks?

Rick Schneiders: Johns Hopkins put together the surveys for the communities. And through that survey we identified at least a baseline of products that we wanted to have on the trailer. And then we actually had a contest where we had a drawing every week for four weeks and we collected grocery receipts from families in the communities so we could actually see what they were buying and how much they were spending. And frankly, we knew that we weren’t going to get this right from the beginning--over time, we were going to have to continue to refine the product selection. My wife and I will be up tonight looking through a catalog trying to add new products to our mix. We’re pretty hopeful that over time we’re going to make it a much better selection for the community members. We’re really trying to have healthy products so there are no chips, no candy, and no soft drinks on this trailer. Forty to fifty percent of our sales right now are fresh produce. We also have canned goods and meat products. Right now, we have a little over two hundred different items and I now think that we can get somewhere close to four hundred different products for sale on the trailer.

NPH: Tell us about your expansion plans.

Rick Schneiders: We are in one community right now and we deliver twice a week--Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. We think we can serve six communities based on what we know now with this one unit. And hopefully those would all be Native American communities. And if it continues to go well, there are nineteen or twenty pueblos [communities] in New Mexico and we might even be able to support a second trailer. Then we would like to go to other rural areas in New Malice that have similar issues in terms of access to healthy and affordable food in all parts of New Mexico--and in fact, all parts of the U.S. In the grand scheme of things we would figure out a way to do this in an economically sustainable way and then move to other locations. We’d also like to test the concept in an urban setting like Houston or somewhere in Manhattan. So that’s the kind of longer range thinking.

NPH: Could the truck be the solution for many food deserts?

Rick Schneiders: I think it could be a contributor to the solution--but I don’t think it would be the only solution. In rural areas you don’t see in many cases that it’s feasible to put a grocery store out there on the ground. Even for a modest grocery store you’re going to spend 750 thousand to one million dollars of capital and then you’re stuck in the sense that you’re only in one community. With MoGro the capital cost is basically between 150 to 200 thousand dollars but you can spread that across six communities so we think it’s a good model, but we don’t think it’s the only model. From a realistic perspective, different communities are going to need different innovations.

NPH: I’m intrigued by the large selection that the truck provides.

Rick Schneiders: MoGro is not going to replace Wal-Mart--it’s not going to replace Albertson’s or a Kroger’s--we just don’t have room for that kind of selection. But we are only focusing on food. You might call it paternalistic or maternalistic in the sense that we are trying to guide selection a little bit, but we’re not going to provide some things that we believe are not healthy and besides, consumers can get those things at a convenience store. Every little community has a convenience store and you walk in and they have aisle after aisle of chips and ice-cream and candy--so we’re providing an alternative to that. I have to tell you one of my favorite stories from last week. I gave out a seventy dollar order to this woman and I helped her load her groceries into the back of her car and she said, “You know, I quit going to Wal-Mart now--I just buy all of my groceries at MoGro.” As you can imagine, this was music to my ears. But being realistic, we’re not expecting everybody to give up their shopping at a larger grocery store. We know that every once in a while, they’re still going to go to another place that offers a lot of variety. But we think we can do a good job at providing a wide range of products. And one of the things my wife and I do--actually more Beth than me--is challenge ourselves personally as a family. We buy products before we leave on a shopping day from MoGro and we go home and cook with it. We’ve had a couple of meals now with just MoGro products and we’ve been very pleased with it--and we’re fussy eaters. We’ve been really pleased with the variety and the quality and the prices of the products.

NPH: How are your partners informing the public about healthy foods?

Rick Schneiders: The good news is that the education piece is getting better and easier. People know today--whether they’re in Native American communities or they’re in Houston--they understand that eating lower fat and less sodium and less sugar and those kinds of things, that it’s better for them, it’s better for their children and it’s better for their families. So that’s really where our focus is as we’ve started and are moving forward. Before we opened we had a community dinner where we served healthy products, and over 200 people came. We had kids do a skit about MoGro that was very well-done and very clever. So I anticipate that as we move to other communities we will continue to have meetings with the tribal leadership of the communities and leaders of the communities in general. The reason we’re doing this is not to sell groceries--it’s really to have a positive health outcome over the long-term.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.