Recently, Mayor Paul Soglin has been investigating whether there's a way to bring some of Madison's best food carts to various spots around town for food-centered neighborhood events. He'd like to start with Meadowood. Soglin mentions the California group Off the Grid as an inspiration, but he also references neighborhood-strengthening events tied to food cart roundups taking place across the country.
"In some communities, there are monthly gatherings focused around food," says Soglin.
While visiting the Meadowood area on the city's west side last year, the mayor observed there was not much good, fresh food available. At the Meadowood Shopping Center, in the heart of the neighborhood, there's one takeout Chinese spot and a Walgreens. "There's no vendor for fresh produce. There's no restaurant where people can go in, sit down and eat," Soglin notes.
Strong neighborhoods always have access to fresh produce and good food, says Soglin, and "it's characteristic of neighborhoods that need strengthening that they don't have access to good food."
A food-centered event could be monthly, or even weekly, says Soglin. Ideally, he would like the event to take place as close to the shopping center as possible, although other options on the table include closing off a street, using a parking lot, or setting up in a nearby city park.
Such an event "does a number of things. It creates a sense of place, it builds community," says the mayor. Moreover, Soglin notes, food creates the opportunity for neighbors to sit down and talk to each other. In the process, better food is introduced into the area. A best-case scenario could be that one of the food vendors spies an opportunity and opens up a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Business is invigorated, food access is improved and a greater sense of vitality changes the overall perception of the area.
The San Francisco group that Soglin cites, Off the Grid, began in June 2010, according to its website, "with the simple idea that grouping street food vendors together...would create an experience that would allow neighbors to connect with friends, and families to reconnect with each other." Off the Grid focuses on urban areas and underutilized spaces; it now coordinates bringing mobile food vendors together in 12 locations across greater San Francisco.
In Madison, the mayor's office is still reaching out to vendors and neighbors on the idea, but Soglin sees plenty of upside. "The only downside," he says, "is maybe we spent some time on an idea that didn't work out."