Brandon Norman processes Nonya Mack's EBT payment for her purchase of sweet potatoes and peppers.
Brandon Norman processes Nonya Mack's EBT payment for her purchase of sweet potatoes and peppers. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

By Rose Hoban

Nonya Mack has a 9-year-old daughter who actually eats kale. And spinach. And peppers. And lots of other vegetables. And Mack said she doesn’t have to force it on her.

“I try a little smoothie, or fruit salad, or something,” Mack said. “I’m getting her into sort of embracing vegetables more than usual.”

But getting those fruits and vegetables to feed her daughter has been something of a challenge for Mack, who lives in the Warnersville neighborhood of Greensboro, an area that’s designated as a food desert.

Brandon Norman processes Nonya Mack’s EBT payment for her purchase of sweet potatoes and peppers. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

A food desert is defined as a urban or rural area where access to fresh, healthy food is limited by geography or poverty or lack of access to transportation.

But Mack will start getting some help finding vegetables and fruits courtesy of a new mobile market that began appearing in the parking lot of the community center near her house this past week. She heard about the new mobile market when someone from the Guilford County Health Department showed up at her door with a flier about the program a couple of weeks ago. Then a trailer showed up on Wednesday afternoon and will continue to come with fresh fruits and vegetables every week until late November.

“I was so excited to hear about it because I’ve been wanting to find something that’s closer instead of going to the farmers market that’s out of the way for me,” Mack said. “So this is really convenient for those of us who really can’t get around like that.”

She spent $1.82 on a bag of sweet potatoes and peppers on Wednesday; there was plenty of kale on offer, but Mack said she had some at home already.

Asking for fresh food

In 2012, public-health experts from the Guilford County Health Department started assessing the health needs of their community. One of the issues that quickly became apparent from focus groups, mapping and door-to-door surveys was the need for fresh, healthy food in many parts of the county.

At Wednesday’s market, the produce on sale included kale, several kinds of peppers, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Organizers had to run out to their providers three times over the course of the day in order to meet all the demand for produce. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

And there are many areas like this in Guilford County: 24 U.S. Department of Agriculture designated food deserts, 17 of which are within the Greensboro city limits.

“We went out and visited 74 convenience stores in Greensboro and High Point and found that 85 percent of the convenience stores accepted [electronic benefits transfer for food stamps], but only 12 percent had any fresh food,” said Mark Smith, an epidemiologist with the county health department.

Smith said many of the people they surveyed were spending their food stamp dollars on food from these stores, which he described as “low nutritional quality.”

Then, when people from the health department did focus groups in the Warnersville neighborhood, many people said they really needed access to better food.

Around the same time, Smith was having conversations with his co-worker Marianne Legreso, who was learning about food deserts and addressing the issue with mobile farmers markets.

“When you get experts on a national level saying mobile market and the people in the community are saying mobile market, we’ve got a match,” Legreso said.

But funding took about four years to cobble together. Finally, the health department obtained about $20,000 to buy a trailer to transport the food; get the mobile market kitted out with shelves, scales and equipment; and pay for an initial food investment.

According to Smith, the funds made from selling the food will help to pay for subsequent wholesale purchases of the produce. Next year, the mobile market will travel around town on more days of the week, to more neighborhoods that have been identified as having food-access issues.

The mobile market currently goes out on Wednesday mornings and afternoons. Next spring, health department officials plan to have more days and locations for the market to operate. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Scaling up

A line of people were waiting to buy produce by the time the mobile farmers market opened Wednesday morning at its first stop in front of the county Department of Social Services office.

Janet Mayer from the health department said someone had to run out and restock the produce because they ran out so quickly.

“It’s a lot better turnout than I anticipated,” she said. “I’m really pleased.”

The heavy demand wasn’t surprising to Brandon Norman from the not-for-profit Vision Tree, which partnered with the health department to get the mobile market up and running. Vision Tree focuses on reducing the problem of food deserts by helping people start community gardens and learn about eating healthy food. The organization will be coordinating the processing of electronic food stamp payments and doing community outreach for the mobile markets.

“The demand today really busts the myth that people on food stamps don’t want to eat healthy food,” said Norman.

Geraldine Seagraves came out to the mobile market after a friend told her about the service. She bought cabbage, sweet potatoes and kale for her Sunday supper. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

He said Vision Tree also helped create a community garden in the Warnersville neighborhood and recruited high school students to work there.

“I’ve seen our community garden go from knee-high grass to now about 12 raised beds out there. We’ve got production going on now, with fresh peppers, lettuce and tomatoes,” he said.

Norman, who got his degree in political science at North Carolina A&T State University, said he sees the connection between politics and food and tries to get that connection across to people in the community.

“That’s what we’re trying to teach: food sovereignty, knowing how to grow your own food, knowing where it’s grown, knowing the pesticides in your food,” he said.

And Norman said many of the people who were buying on Wednesday appreciated the importance of getting their hands on high-quality produce.

“The last customer we had at the table, she flat out just said, ‘Thank you so much for doing this,’” he said. “Things like that make my day.”

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