YMCA rolls out a Veggie Van

A mobile market place delivering where most needed.

YMCA Veggie VanThe Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA has launched a mobile market place, called the Veggie Van, to meet the needs of individuals and families living in underserved areas of Hillsborough County. Through a colorful, refrigerated truck, the Y is now distributing fresh, nutritious food such as fruits and vegetables for just $1 per bag into targeted communities labeled food deserts.

What is a Food Desert? Food deserts are located at least one mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store in urban areas and more than ten miles in rural areas. Many residents who live in food deserts do not have a vehicle and rely on walking or public transportation. It becomes easier and less time consuming to go to convenience stores and gas stations, which provide few, if any, healthy or nutritious food choices. At most of these stores, prices are inflated, food is processed and choices are limited. In metropolitan Tampa, there are 40 locations deemed food deserts. As the Y studied the 40 locations, it became clear that limited access to healthy foods plays a significant role in poor dietary decisions.

Currently, the Y’s Veggie Van is distributing in the Hillsborough communities of Wimauma Village, Tampa Heights, Sulphur Springs, and Lacoochee in Pasco County. Each of these locations has a demonstrated need for nutritional wellness. Other communities may be added depending on need. Community food distributions takes place every two weeks on a rotating basis.

The Tampa Y is working with local farmers and growers (under the guidance of the municipal and state health departments) to provide seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables to residents at specific distribution locations. Participants for the program are pre-screened by local partners to include service clubs, schools and churches. Children and families receiving free or reduced-price lunches will automatically qualify and only need to sign up for the service. The mobile market place has a nutritionist on staff to work with families on improving food preparation and cooking habits to minimize the risk of obesity, chronic disease, and high blood pressure. Working with residents to make good nutrition decisions, while maintaining a commitment to cultural food norms and traditions, is a vital objective of the Veggie Van.

Why is a Mobile Market Place Important for Tampa Bay? Only 20% of residents in Hillsborough County meet the recommended five-a-day servings of fruit and vegetables. In underserved communities, the statistic drops to below 8.5%. People trying to feed their families with lower incomes face a double impact as food costs at stores in food deserts are usually significantly higher than food costs at stores in larger communities. Nutritious, perishable food, such as fruits and vegetables are especially high in cost. The Veggie Van will increase access to those living below poverty and the working poor. By increasing access in food deserts, more individuals will receive food benefits, and less will go hungry. In addition, individuals in need will receive timely access to nutritious food.

The Tampa YMCA was able to launch the Veggie Van thanks to generous funding from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, The Joy McCann Foundation, and Bank of America. Additionally, the Florida Department of Agriculture has played a key advisory role in developing the mobile market place concept and moving it forward.For more information or to register for this program, please contact Elizabeth Roman, Mobile Food Market Director, at 813/229-9622 x1729. Follow @TampaYVeggieVan on twitter.