The smell of fresh produce filled the air of the parking lot on the north side of Nationwide Insurance Thursday morning. A white trailer with bold, green letters that read “Fresh Wagon” across the side, displayed a variety of fruits and vegetables for Nationwide employees to choose from.
Fresh Wagon is a United States Department of Agriculture-funded project that provides fresh produce to Gainesville residents at a low cost. The wagon has been in business for two years, according to Bruce Waite, executive director of Common Thread Alliance.
Fresh Wagon is a service of the Food Oasis Project, which is a program of Common Thread Alliance. The alliance is a nonprofit organization and is a farmer-producer that operates in Melrose, FL. The workers of Common Thread go out weekly and aggregate produce from nine partner farms, Waite explained.
The Fresh Wagon facilitates a relationship between local farmers by making it available for small family farms to have the opportunity to build sustainable revenue, according to Waite.
On Thursdays, the wagon goes to a number of companies and employers, such as CH2M Hill, Nationwide Insurance, UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions and the Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center.
On Fridays, the wagon goes to numerous Housing and Urban Development-sponsored locations in East Gainesville, from housing that focuses on people with disabilities to the elderly to families, Waite explained.
“Part of our research is trying to connect the issues associated with state, federal and corporate employees that may be struggling to make ends meet,” Waite said. “And [they] may be deferring their utilization of fresh food, because it’s expensive.”
“So even though they (employees) come here (Nationwide Insurance) every day to work, [the question is]: Do they go home to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a supermarket for them?”
Students and employees walk along the circle drive of the College of Public Health and Health Professions, located at 1225 Center Drive, as the Fresh Wagon trailer pulls up and parks around noon Thursday. The farmers open the doors on the side of the trailer and pull out the shelves of produce.
Within five minutes, a crowd of people lined up to begin picking their produce, a green basket in hand. Students walking by stop to observe the wagon, eventually picking up a basket or plastic bag to start picking.
“It’s easy to come by and get fresh food while at work,” Anne Bogar, a UF Health Shands Hospital employee, said. “I don’t have to deal with the insanity of the local market by where I live.”
The farms listed on the Fresh Wagon Website are as follows: Barnes Farm located in Hastings; Blue Sky Farm and Brubaker Farms located in Elkton; Brown’s Family Farm and Frog Song Organics located in Hawthorne; Full Circle Farm located in Melrose.
“We load about 32 to 34 different fresh fruits and vegetables by Wednesday of every week,” Waite said.
He explained that Common Thread received an inquiry from the City of Gainesville around six months ago about positioning the wagon in locations where more people can access it.
He mentioned that so far there has been no update on the inquiry but assured that the alliance is willing to discuss expanding.
The idea of Fresh Wagon came from a concern about food proximity in neighborhoods where people lacked the access, according to Waite.
“Over time, it has also grown to encompass a strong interest in working people and their lack of proximity and inconvenience of getting fresh food while working,” Waite said.
To locate the areas where additional access to fresh produce is needed, the program employs Neighborhood Deprivation Indexing. It looks at 17 different socioeconomic measures and enables Common Thread to map those measures in four quadrants of health risks, Waite explained.
“People lack access to transportation. Even though there is bus service available, it’s a challenge [to grocery shop],” Waite said. “We’re trying to strengthen those communities. We’re trying to foster independence.”