TAMPA — Kids might not chase after it like they would the ice cream man, but grown-ups are eager to take advantage of a new mobile vegetable stand that soon will roll into neighborhoods lacking in grocery options.
The Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA is launching the Veggie Van on July 10, taking fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables to communities defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food deserts: rural or urban neighborhoods without easy access to fresh, healthy, affordable food.
To be considered a food desert, an urban neighborhood must be a mile or more away from the closest source of fresh high-quality food. For a rural neighborhood, the trigger is 10 or more miles away.
The Veggie Van will serve four Tampa area communities — Wimauma Village, Tampa Heights and Sulphur Springs in Hillsborough County and Lacoochee in Pasco County. The mobile truck will visit each location at a set time and place once every other week.
Darlene-Anika Christian, of Sulphur Springs, got an early look at the Veggie Van when she went to pick her grandkids up from school. Christian plans to visit the van when it stops every other Thursday.
“They can supply you with things you really need and at such a low price. It’s unbelievable. You get more than your money’s worth,” Christian said. “It’s worth it, I’m telling you. Don’t pass it up.”
Christian said she’s trying to spread the word in her neighborhood. For those who either can’t come down or won’t believe it, she plans to buy extra produce to boost their interest.
“I can see now where I wasn’t buying the vegetables I truly needed because I couldn’t afford it. But now, like wow, I’m baking more potatoes and eating more salads with radishes and tomatoes,” Christian said. “You can’t beat this. It’s a good nutritional meal. You can make a meal out of all of it to go along with the things you do have. …It’s a blessing, truly a blessing.”
In many food deserts, people rely on public transportation or walking, and the closest food source often is a convenience store with a limited selection at high prices.
In Tampa, 40 locations are deemed food deserts, according to data from the local YMCA. Florida has more than 400, the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services says.
“We want to make sure their environment has available to them fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price,” said Robin Safley, director of the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness with the state Department of Agriculture, a partner in the Veggie Van.
“Some food deserts may not have the capacity to keep a store financially, so a better option is a mobile market. The Veggie Van has the capacity to build the bridge for that access point,”
Along with the fresh veggies, a nutritionist will visit during each of the Veggie Van stops to answer questions and teach ways of cooking healthier meals, said Lalita Llerena, communications director with the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.
The Veggie Van will feature seasonal produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peppers, carrots, apples and oranges.
To join the program, participants will pay a small fee based on income for a bag containing a variety of fresh produce. Additional bags will cost about $1, Llerena said. Families with children on free or reduced-priced lunches at schools and who meet the federal poverty threshold are qualified to join.
The mobile market will accept food stamps, too.
The Veggie Van is one of many possible answers to the challenge posed by food deserts, said Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based food access and health consultant.
Over the past 30 years, the marketplace has changed nationwide. Fewer people now are close to their food source, Gallagher said. Competition and the rise of chain groceries have contributed to the trend.
“It’s good to see an organization that focuses on families and exercise also take the extra step to embrace healthy food and make it more accessible, make it fun,” Gallagher said of the YMCA effort.
The best answers for each food desert come from studying its unique needs, she said.
The Veggie Van is the first effort of its kind by the local YMCA. Veggie Vans also are operated by YMCA’s in other states.
The agency hopes to serve at least 150 families at each site in the Tampa area, or about 600 families a month, Llerena said.
The first year of the project is being funded by donations from the taxpayer-supported Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, The Joy McCann Foundation and Bank of America. Some donors have pledged to help fund the project for a number of years. Produce will come from local farmers and growers.
The official unveiling of the Veggie Van is scheduled for noon July 10 at the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA, 110 E. Palm Avenue.
“We’re all about kids, we’re all about health, and we’re all about helping neighbors,” said Tom Looby, president and CEO of Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA. “And we think the Veggie Van hits all three.”