This Farmers Market’s On Wheels, Bringing Produce To ‘Food Deserts’

By David Breen Orlando Sentinel.

At first it looks like any other Lynx bus. But instead of advertising personal-injury lawyers, this one advertises fruit. And vegetables. And instead of carrying people to work, this bus is packed with produce.

It's the Fresh Stop Mobile Market, a retired, refitted bus that's recently begun traveling throughout Orange County.

The idea, according to market manager Yolanda Daniels, is to go to "food deserts" -- areas far from grocery stores where residents tend to buy unhealthy foods from corner convenience stores. That dynamic, she said, contributes to high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

On Wednesday, the bus rolled into Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in time for the weekly meeting of the church's seniors group.

A steady stream of parishioners went through the bus.

Lisa Demps, 71, emerged with a bag full of red new potatoes, onions, apples and bananas.

"It's very, very fresh, and I like that," she said. "It's so wonderful to have this."

"It's convenient for me," added 85-year-old May Wilson, who uses a walker to get around. "It's hard for me to go shopping."

All but six of the retired Lynx bus' passenger seats have been removed. Coolers and shelf space for a wide variety of produce -- apples to zucchini, and most fruits and veggies in between -- have been added. "Fresh Facts" about healthy eating adorn the walls where riders once stared at ads.

Later in the day, curious middle-schoolers checked out the bus at Front Line Outreach, an urban ministry for kids.

"I thought it was good because it can drive around," said 12-year-old Antavon Harrison. "And not that many people live close to stores." Tanga Owens, 11, enjoyed the selection, adding that she's a fan of pears, strawberries, mangoes, oranges and bananas.

The two, along with classmate Quenderria Butler, 11, agreed the bus would make them more likely to eat healthfully.

The bus is the work of Hebni Nutrition Consultants, a nonprofit formed by three women who have practiced as dietitians in Central Florida for two decades. The program is funded by Orange County, Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation. The bus was donated by Lynx.

One of the trio behind Hebni is Fabiola Gaines. She said the group realized that something was missing from its efforts to educate people about the need for good nutrition.

"We can do all kinds of nutrition classes, but if the community doesn't have access to healthy fruits and vegetables, it kind of negates the classes," Gaines said.

"The whole purpose is to reduce the rates of chronic diseases we see in Central Florida."

After some trial runs, the bus started going out regularly last week. For now it runs on weekdays, with plans for Saturday service as well. The route is still a work in progress, but for now there are 16 stops spread across the county, including Bithlo, Winter Park, Eatonville and east and west Orlando.

The bus visits two or three of the stops a day, staying a couple of hours at each location. So far, Gaines said, the reception has been good. Eventually, the plan is to add stops in Osceola and Seminole counties.

"We're wanting to pace ourselves and see how the community embraces it," Gaines said.

Another key piece of the rolling market's mission is education, Gaines said. It's fitted with lights and an awning on one side to host outdoor classes.

Staff will expose kids to different fruits and vegetables and provide them with recipes they can prepare at home with their parents. Gaines is excited about this new way of spreading the word about eating right.

"If you fill your stomach with fruits and vegetables," she said, "you're less likely to have high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar foods."

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