By Danielle Roslevich | Photos by Joseph Shaw
The Food For All (FFA) Mobile Market, owned by Charles Williams, and operated by Khadija Ahmed, brings African produce, meats, and other African staples to new immigrants in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Lewiston, Brunswick, and Bath. Ahmed and Williams run the grocery delivery operation as a for-profit business, with a focus on serving those who use city voucher and food stamp programs. Both Ahmed and Williams see FFA as a service they are providing to the community. Ahmed, who speaks French, Lingala, Swahili, and English, handles customer service, while Williams drives the truck.
The business launched in 2019, after hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa arrived that summer and initially were sheltered at the Portland Expo. At the time, Ahmed had been working with Preble Street’s emergency program to provide culturally appropriate food to those families and individuals staying at the Expo. When the asylum seekers were moved to areas such as Brunswick and Bath, Ahmed was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to secure the foods they needed, due to lack of access or reliable transportation to the African markets in Portland.
Initially, Ahmed and Williams wanted to create a mobile food pantry, and bought a truck so they could take food to these communities. However, when they learned the complexities of the legal process for providing free food, they decided to create a for-profit business, and Food for All Mobile Market was born.
Ahmed and Williams worked with suppliers in Boston and New York to obtain African food, and then with area governments that provide vouchers for food assistance. Many new immigrants use the voucher system while they wait for permission to work, and while Ahmed said they would prefer to run a free service, she believes FFA is the next-best option for serving the community. Ahmed says that working through the voucher program comes with its own challenges, and paperwork. Sometimes, they are not reimbursed for up to three months for the vouchers.
But new immigrants using the voucher system to buy food at mainstream grocery stores often face language barriers and confusion about the products available, which can lead to stressful and embarrassing experiences – for example, holding up others in the line when they must put food back on the shelf because it is not covered by vouchers.
“Our mission is to remove stigma around buying food for their children, just because they have no jobs. They should get help when they need help, but there is so much stigma at American grocery stores. I want to make sure New Mainers have a place to come and get food for their children and families,” said Ahmed. FFA stocks produce such as cassava, sweet potato, and amaranth leaves. Their meat choices include goat, smoked fish, and African chickens, which are smaller than their American counterparts.
Roughly 25% of the FFA truck is stocked with free milk, eggs, bread, and fruit to give away, as well as other basic items like clothing and personal care products. Preble Street, the Portland-based nonprofit that provides food and housing for those in need, helps stock the truck. Ahmed runs Preble Street’s Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative, another program that grew from the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo in 2019. Ahmed spends a lot of time collaborating with Preble Street, and sees her business as a branch of the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative.
“In a perfect world, FFA would not exist. In a perfect world, we would have this program at Preble Street, and stock pantry items there that are culturally appropriate.” Ahmed hopes that one day a mobile food pantry will be included in the Preble Street budget. But until that day, Ahmed and Williams say that Food for All Mobile Market will continue delivering food directly to customers, and accepting food vouchers as payment. To place an order or donate to FFA, call (207) 900-9597 or email [email protected].