TAMPA — Nutritionists have a term for areas where access to affordable, nutritious food is hard to find: food deserts. And, believe it or not, various agencies have identified 40 such areas — usually areas where the inhabitants earn a relatively low income or a rural area, or both — here in Hillsborough County.
Malnutrition, childhood hunger and even obesity are issues that have been linked to food deserts. The Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA is launching a new program to help alleviate the problems that food deserts create — the Veggie Van.
“We’re an organization that cares about kids and families. Nutrition and the availability of food is an important factor in the well-being of kids and families,” Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA CEO Tom Looby said.
The Veggie Van currently has funding for the first three years and will serve area YMCAs including those in Carrollwood and Northwest Tampa. Funding is coming from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the Joy McCann Foundation and Bank of America.
“I hope we will be able to continue the program for a long, long time,” Looby said. “I also hope we can expand it to serve more communities.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture has been a key player in the development of the program. The YMCA hopes to be able to expand the program once it is established. The fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables distributed will come from local farmers and growers.
Children and families receiving free or reduced lunch are automatically qualified and just have to sign up for the program. A nutritionist will also be on staff on the Veggie Van and will help families with planning and cooking nutritious meals. The nutritionist will also work on trying to minimize the risk of high blood pressure, obesity and chronic illnesses caused by poor nutrition.
“This is one of the programs that will help the pieces of the puzzle fit together better,” Looby said. “For example, if we have a child that is struggling in reading, we get them a tutor. However, if the child then shows up for tutoring hungry, it will be difficult for them to focus and learn. We hope the Veggie Van will make an impact here.”
The Veggie Van will be unveiled at the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA, located at 110 E. Palm Ave. in Tampa. The ceremony will be on July 10 from noon to 1:30 p.m. The inaugural distribution will take place immediately following the ceremony.