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Duluth man’s creation of 'Cadillac of food trucks' will help teach about healthy food prep

Mike Poupore of Duluth spent nights and weekends since October building a fully equipped, mobile commercial kitchen for nutritional outreach efforts in Richmond, Va. He said it’s the “Cadillac of food trucks.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Starting with a trailer chassis, Mike Poupore has created a mobile commercial kitchen that will be used in urban food deserts to teach healthy food preparation. The windows roll up and the counter slides out for outside demonstrations. The exterior will get a colorful advertising wrap to identify it. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Stainless steel appliances,  commercial-grade convection oven, solar panels, a public address system and plenty of room.

Mike Poupore calls it the “Cadillac of food trucks.”

The Duluth contractor-turned-architectural designer has spent the past five months building the mobile kitchen in a Proctor storage unit.

 The kitchen’s mission: teach people how to prepare healthy foods.

 “I got the trailer in mid-October. I’ve been working on it nights and weekends since,” Poupore said as he neared the project’s completion this month.

Called the Learning Kitchen, it’s a fully equipped commercial kitchen that will travel to urban “food deserts” or low-income neighborhoods that lack full-service grocery stores and healthy food choices.

“We’re only one or two generations out of the farm, and we don’t know how to cook vegetables anymore,” Poupore said.

But, the mobile kitchen won’t be used in Duluth.

 Poupore was hired to build it for Richmond, Va., a city of 210,300 people.

Commissioned by that city’s nonprofit Bon Secours health system, it will be used in Richmond’s East End, an at-risk community with five government-run housing projects whose residents are in need of better food and nutrition.

The mobile kitchen can hold small groups inside or be opened up for demonstrations to larger groups outside.

“This is a tool to give people the opportunity to see healthy foods and to show them how to make a meal on a low budget,” said Rachel Bulifant, community nutrition manager for Bon Secours in Richmond. “It’s an opportunity for them to learn about new foods, try them, get new recipes. Hopefully, this will spur purchases of new foods from our local markets and other areas.”

For Bon Secours, it’s the latest in a series of outreach efforts in nutrition and health. The system has helped bring fresh foods to communities in need and has sent out caravans to provide medical care for the uninsured.

“This connects with it as well,” Bulifant said of the mobile kitchen. “We will do some chronic disease management with it such as diabetes, heart-healthy eating and focus on obesity prevention.”

It also may go to schools to provide nutritional education and be used in health-related promotional events.

Duluth could use one

Poupore would like to see a similar effort in Duluth, which has its own food deserts, including Lincoln Park, where many without cars buy food at convenience stores because the neighborhood lacks a grocery store.

“There’s nothing like this here,” he said of the mobile kitchen. “I’d really like to see something like this in town.”

Jahn Hibbs, executive director of the Duluth Community Garden Program, has worked to increase access to healthy foods in Lincoln Park.

The efforts of Hibbs and others led to a farmers market in the Lincoln Park last summer, a community garden, the Lincoln Park Fair Food Access Campaign and bringing the One Vegetable, One Community initiative to the neighborhood.

But a mobile kitchen is new to her.

“A food truck is an idea that’s been talked about in different circles,” Hibbs said. “I’ve heard about it as a way to provide a mobile market. But I never heard of this, using it as an educational opportunity.”

But it caught her interest.

“That’s a neat idea,” she said. “We could absolutely use that in Duluth.”

At a cost of $150,000 to build, however, it doesn’t come cheap.

 “It’s not just the trailer, it’s the programming, staffing and design,” Poupore said. “Now we have to create a spot to store it and plug it in. They’re spending a lot of money to make this a reality.”

The Bon Secours Richmond Health System is paying for the mobile community kitchen in-house, through its community fund and foundation mission grants, but outside grants may be sought for its continued operations, Bulifant said.

College connection

Poupore, 52, got involved while attending University of Miami School of Architecture a few years ago. While there, he helped retrofit an old camper into a food truck as a class project.

Hearing about that effort, the Bon Secours Richmond Health System approached the college about a more ambitious project, a mobile kitchen for community outreach.

“This is more of a demonstration trailer, with demonstration mirrors above the countertop and microphones,” Poupore said. “And it would have a lot more room.”

The school backed out of the project but recommended that the hospital hire Poupore to design and build it. It did. Poupore had been a general contractor for 25 years before going back to school to become an architect.

Poupore worked with Bulifant on the design. When he graduated in 2011, after completing the five-year architectural program, he returned to Duluth, and the project came with him.

He started with an 8-foot-by-20-foot aluminum trailer chassis on wheels, built to his specifications. It included openings for windows and doors, space underneath for water tanks, a utility closet and racks for propane bottles.

 Poupore did all the finishing work, including installing the vinyl flooring, stainless steel cabinets, appliances and lighting and the wiring, gas and other mechanical systems. He devised the rollup demonstration windows, slide-out butcher block demonstration counter and installed the generator that runs everything.

“It hasn’t been hard, there’s just been so many little details,” Poupore said. “Everything takes twice as long as you think it will take. There’s more trips to the home center. There’s more than a few parts to order, everything from the awning to the right PA system. You have to order one more thing online and wait for it to come in. “

The trailer also had to be equipped with a fire-suppression system. It must pass health department and fire department inspections and be accredited by National Sanitation Foundation.

After finishing last week, Poupore hooked up the 6,000-pound trailer to a 1-ton truck and towed it to Richmond. There, the Learning Kitchen will be launched into service next month.

“For a group that wants to step up to the plate and want to make their community better, this goes above and beyond,” Poupore said of Bon Secours. “And to want to involve me, it’s an honor and a privilege.”

It was unlike any job he had done as a general contractor.

While Poupore currently works for the Meyer Group in Duluth as a designer, he’ll become an architect after his required 2½ years as a designer.

But he wouldn’t mind building more mobile kitchens, especially for a good cause.

“Now that I have built one, I know what to do and how to do it better,” he said. “It would be an opportunity to do it better. I would do it again, whatever I can do to help.”

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