Before the wagon even had its signs on display or all of its greens unpacked, Oak Park residents were cradling bunches of collared greens and asking about the price of corn.
The mobile market, or “Fresh Wagon,” boasts crisp lettuce, bulbous turnips and crates of apples, oranges, grapes and bananas. The sweet potatoes still have a dusting of soil and one onion is the size of two fists.
Thursday was the inauguration of the wagon’s first rounds since April, beginning with Oak Park, 100 NE Eighth Ave., and heading toward Woodland Park, 1900 SE Fourth St., later that afternoon. Starting at 1 p.m. Friday, the white and green truck started its path with Sunshine Park and ended in Pine Meadows, which is open to Lake Terrace, Caroline Manor and Forest Pines residents as well.
The communities it visited are all public housing units, many of which are monitored by the Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas for low income and low access regions. In urban areas, being one mile from a market and beyond constitutes as low access, or essentially a ‘food desert.’
For families living in East Gainesville, immediate food markets include a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Save-A-Lot food store, a singular Publix near Main Street, and a smattering of dollar stores and gas stations.
“Our mission is to redirect fresh food into areas with high health risk and food insecurity,” said farmer and director of Fresh Wagon Bruce Waite. He said the concern was not only for low-income families’ inability to find and purchase food, but also for them to eat healthy.
The wagon is funded by the USDA and works with Common Threads, a consulting organization with multiple food insecurity projects targeting childhood obesity.
Using an algorithm that considers 16 socioeconomic models, including obesity rates, metabolic diseases and hypertension, the project pinpoints higher health-risk neighborhoods, which often correlates with food deserts. Waite said everything he does is through a health lens. He said he also wants to help connect local families to farms.
Fresh Wagon works with a handful of farmers, from Hastings to Alachua County in order to provide seasonal veggies, which pack the refrigerated truck, Waite said. The harvests and farmers used vary weekly, but he said Frog Song Organics, Blue Sky Farms and Wells Brothers Farm supplied Thursday’s and Friday’s bounty.
“Our first priority is to buy local from family farms, and sell them at the freshest state,” Waite said. He wants conventional food that is easy to consume and hopes for customer feedback of their produce preferences.
Stuart Strome, who worked with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences when Fresh Wagon was a pilot program, stayed back in the shade, asking customers survey questions. He said the wagon’s current mission was a continuation of the spring project and hopes the program will expand its locations and promote customers to think long-term about their purchases.
He said, starting in January, the wagon will make weekly visitations to the same housing units with new recipes and seasonal products.
Diane Jones walked away from the wagon laughing and carrying two bags of fruits and vegetables. She’s been an Oak Park resident for nine years and said Publix is the only place she’d shop— until now.
“I don’t have a car,” Jones said. “Over half the people in [Oak Park] don’t have a car.” With the market in the parking lot, she said she’d buy her fresh veggies weekly right from the wagon instead of monthly.
“We sure need more— old people got to have their vegetables,” she said.
Waite said Fresh Wagon differs from food banks in that it offers families a choice in their produce, a form of exercising their own resources and restoring dignity to food choice.
“There’s many factors here– economic opportunity and access to good quality food, and to encourage people to use it efficiently,” he said.
Fresh Wagon will be making another round Dec.1 to the same communities and accepts cash, card and food stamps.