Monique Williams McCoy greets everyone walking down Cleveland avenue like a neighbor.
“Hey y’all!” she calls out. “You coming over to check it out today, right? Over to the mobile market?”
Williams McCoy has lived in this part of Columbus, Ohio, for most of her life, and she’s familiar with how hard it can be to shop for groceries here. She works for Local Matters, an organization that tries to improve food education and access.
“People would have to take two buses to get to one grocery store,” Williams McCoy says, shaking her head. “So that can be a hardship for someone that has young children, or someone elderly who can’t walk and carry groceries and so on and so forth. So we’re trying to bring it to where they’re at.”
With so few grocery stores around, it’s especially difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables. So this month, Local Matters launched the Veggie Van – a mobile market that sells fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.
They even accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, she explains to a passerby.
“If you check it out, you can use cash, your debit card, or your food stamp card, and then we match you, match your SNAP benefits,” Williams McCoy says, her facing lighting up as she speaks. “So you spend $10, I’ll give you $10.”
Her nose crinkles when she smiles, animating a bridge of freckles.
The veggie van will visit different neighborhoods over the weeks, spending Tuesdays in Linden, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Franklinton, and Fridays on the East Side. Research shows these neighborhoods have the city’s highest rates of food insecurity.
“We are hoping that by shopping at the veggie van and making fresh produce more available and more affordable in communities where it’s not currently, people will eat more of those foods,” says Adam Fazio, director of developement for Local Matters.
The Columbus veggie van is a part of a nationwide study from the University of Buffalo to measure the fruit and vegetable intake in communities that have similar programs. A total of nine veggie vans launched this year, including in Athens, Ohio, Charlotte, N.C., Holyoke, Mass., and Long Island, N.Y.
“They’re seen as one of the positive solutions to improving access to healthy food in areas that don’t have access to a super market,” says lead researcher Lucia Leone. “But there’s not as much good evidence looking at whether or not they’re having an impact on diet.”
Researchers are providing the participating veggie vans with up to $50,000 of support to run the markets.
“A lot of them are only operating during peak growing seasons,” Leone says. “We’re asking them to start operating at least ten months a year so they can be a more consistent source of fresh produce.”
In addition to selling healthy food, Williams McCoy will provide on-site cooking demonstrations, focused on making a meal with market ingredients for less than $10. She chops a bright purple onion and adds it to a mixing bowl full of beans and corn.
“This is one of those easy salads you can make and marinate, and just let it sit in your refrigerator and just eat off it all week,” she says. “Very inexpensive, very good.”
Inexpensive and fresh are the reasons Daniel Baker and his girlfriend Christine Grilando are buying groceries at the mobile market.
“Oh an orange! Can I get two oranges?” Baker asks, holding an orange in his tattooed hand. He looks to Grilando for her approval. “I haven’t had an orange in a while!”
The pair say they usually buy TV dinners because they’re cheap and easy. But they want to start eating healthier.
“You get to pick your own stuff, it’s not all pre-packaged, so that’s a good thing,” Grilando says.
They use their food stamps, and they sign up for Veggie Van’s rewards program, too.
“We got four ears of corn, an onion, two apples, and two small cucumbers,” Baker says.
Their total comes out to just $6.50.
Grilando pulls the tote bag of groceries over her shoulder, and Williams McCoy waves goodbye.
“Goodbye! Thanks for shopping!” she says, smiling.
Grilando and Baker say they plan to come back next week.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.