YMCA Veggie Vans Bring Fresh Produce to Michigan Neighborhoods

VV-Muskegon-On-the-RoadThe end of summer means the shuttering of many local farmers markets.

For one unique market serving urban neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, business is about to pick up.

The YMCA’s Veggie Van program brings fresh fruits and vegetables to communities who might not otherwise have access. The mobile farmers market on wheels started making their rounds in Grand Rapids in 2011 and a second van was purchased to serve the Muskegon community earlier this year. That van is funded through a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Herman Miller Cares, and the Muskegon Community Foundation.

The vans sell locally grown, high-quality fruits and vegetables at reduced prices. They target neighborhoods identified as food deserts, defined by a lack of grocery stores, traditional farmers markets, and healthy food providers. The markets accept SNAP, WIC, and Senior Project Fresh/Market FRESH benefits.

Based on sales, the Muskegon van has been a huge hit. Sara Vander Zanden is the Y’s Community Collaborations Director. She said first-month sales in Grand Rapids totaled just over $500. In Muskegon, it was almost $10,000 and the van has been averaging $8,000 a month since then. Lines sometimes wrapped around the block when the veggie van pulled up.

VV Muskegon - Transaction 1“It has been phenomenal,” Vander Zanden said. “I think that speaks to the need in Muskegon.”

Customers who come out to the Muskegon stops have expressed gratitude to have a convenient option to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Many grocery stores have cleared out of the area and the mobile market is a more realistic option than traveling a great distance by public transportation.

“We put our farmers market on wheels and we bring the healthy food right to people,” Vander Zanden said.

It’s a year-round operation and Vander Zanden said that’s really important, as the issue of access certainly doesn’t go away in the winter. In fact, bad driving conditions often make the situation worse. She said that some of the Grand Rapids’ sites are actually busier in the winter and she anticipates shoppers in Muskegon to also have a greater need for fresh fruits and veggies when the snow starts falling.

The veggie vans mark a sort of evolution of the YMCA’s work and focus, Vander Zanden said. They’ve moved beyond just being a place for families to go to the gym or swim in the pool. The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids expanded its outreach and services in 2001 to be more inclusive of the entire community’s health issues and goals.

After-school programs were started to address childhood obesity in neighborhoods where they were most needed. Cooking Matters classes are offered at many of the veggie van stops. The curriculum covers healthy eating habits, cooking skills, shopping, budgeting, and food safety, with the main objective of teaching families how to make healthy food choices on a budget.

“The Y is committed to social responsibility and a holistic approach to healthy living,” Vander Zanden said.

Other YMCAs across the country have contacted local YMCA staff to learn more about their veggie van operation which, Vander Zanden said, the organization is very committed to keep rolling. To her knowledge, the program is the first of its kind.

“We were kind of pioneers as far as we know,” she said.

Photo credit: Shippert Photography

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