One of the greatest health challenges currently facing U.S. residents is the increasing rates of diet-related diseases and issues. Since 1980, obesity, as measured by the body mass index (BMI), has increased by more than 15 percentage points with no statistically significant decreases over that time period. As of 2010, this increase in BMI has resulted in the U.S. having the highest estimated prevalence of overweight adult men and women (BMI greater than or equal to 25) among the top 50 countries as ranked by their gross domestic product. Recent research has also demonstrated that only 40% of adults in the U.S. maintain a healthy weight (BMI between 18.5 and 25.0) and only 23% consume the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables.

While an individual’s diet is generally conceived to be based on individual’s choices, recent evidence has shown that there may be external factors which influence a person’s ability to maintain a healthy diet and weight. One such influence may be the local food environment. Generally, the local food environment for an individual is characterized by the quantity and type of food retailers or establishments within a person’s visited communities. Communities whose local food environment lacks access to affordable and healthy food retailers are commonly referred to as “food deserts”.

An approach which is becoming common for alleviating food desert conditions is to introduce a mobile food retailer into the community. The advantage of such an approach is that while the demand does not exist in sufficient quantities for a traditional supermarket, a mobile retailer is able to visit multiple locations based on a predetermined schedule and thereby aggregate the necessary demand such that the retailer is economically sustainable.  This business model has spread to more than 10 North American cities including Chicago, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Boston, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Toronto, Ontario; and Phoenix, Arizona.

Currently, there is no research or evidence which can assist a mobile food retail coordinator with the logistics of deploying a mobile retailer within an urban food desert community. It has been identified that there are three key areas of research with regards to the logistical decision making of a mobile food retailer: demand discovery, mobile food retail product mix, and retailer scheduling and routing. The principle objectives of the proposed research are to develop operational planning tools and solution methodologies to assist the logistical planning of a coordinated mobile food retailer system. Specifically, each issue will be addressed by formulating and solving mathematical models including knapsack problems, covering/routing models, and partially observable markov decision processes.