By Richard Salit
CENTRAL FALLS — On a recent afternoon, Rose Lima never even had to leave her building to go grocery shopping.
Instead of having to trek to a supermarket, all Lima had to do was go down to the ground floor of her senior housing high-rise. Awaiting her in Forand Manor's cafeteria was a pop-up market — a colorful cornucopia of fruits and vegetables spread out on a row of tables.
During the two hours it remained open, Lima grabbed a basket and filled it with tomatoes, avocados, yellow plantains, collard greens and more. At the checkout, clerk Reese Middler rang up her $25.48 purchase, which Lima was able to pay for with her EBT card from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — what used to be called food stamps.
"I'm so happy about the market. I live on the sixth floor. This is perfect. I don't have to go out," said Lima, a 64-year-old native of Cape Verde. Using some of the ingredients she just bought, she said, "I'll make gazpacho."
And thanks to a new program, for every SNAP dollar Lima spent, she was given a dollar's credit to spend during another visit to her building by Food on the Move Rhode Island.
"That saves me a lot of money," Lima said.
For years now, public health officials around the country have been trying to address what they call "food deserts," areas where fresh foods are not readily available to low-income people due to affordability and transportation challenges. To combat that issue in Rhode Island, Food on the Move, a mobile purveyor of fresh food, was launched in September.
When Lima and dozens of her manor neighbors bought produce at Forand Manor last Wednesday, it was Food on the Move's debut in Central Falls, along with a stop that morning at Wilfred Manor. That made Central Falls the fifth community in the state to participate. The others are Providence, Pawtucket and Coventry. Westerly joined on Monday with an inaugural visit to Chestnut Court Apartments.
Not only are the residents of public housing welcome to shop at Food on the Move, so is anyone from the surrounding neighborhood invited. In Central Falls, notices were sent to more than 500 people who get Section 8 rental subsidies.
While those who turned out at Forand Manor were mostly senior and disabled residents of the high-rise, there were a steady line of customers filling baskets and waiting to check out last Wednesday.
Community leaders in Central Falls said they identified food deserts as an issue when they recently formed a state-supported Health Equity Zone to address the root causes, or "social determinants," of poor health.
"We wanted to make sure we were listening to the residents of the community. People said they had a hard time getting to fresh fruit and vegetables, and when they could, it was too expensive," said Carrie Zaslow, program officer with LISC Rhode Island, the lead agency for the Health Equity Zone.
That led the city to team up with Food on the Move, a project of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute with support from Brown University and the state Health Department.
Food on the Move grew out of a research-driven project named Fresh to You Market led by Brown researcher Kim Gans.
Gans' work "demonstrated that this mobile market approach, even without SNAP benefits, was very effective at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption." said Amy Nunn, director of the health institute and an assistant professor in Brown's school of public health.
Nunn said that statistics show that nearly 13 percent of Rhode Island households were deemed "food insecure" from 2012 to 2014, with 174,000 receiving SNAP assistance.
Food on the Move has tapped several sources of money to broaden its reach and become a more dependable source of produce. One is a Champlin Foundations grant of $117,000 and another is $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes money to support the "Rhody Bucks" program, in which SNAP participants essentially get to double the value of their monthly assistance.
Another source of funding is the program's "Robin Hood" strategy. Food on the Move generates some of its revenue by visiting places like Brown University and selling its produce to people who can afford more typical retail prices.
Through November, Food on the Move rang up $30,000 in sales on more than 2,700 transactions and issued $11,000 in Rhody Bucks. About one third of the patrons were Latino and nearly 15 percent were African-American and 6 percent American Indian — statistics that reflect Health Department efforts to close racial and ethnic health disparities.
At Forand Manor, Hilda Castillo, a field coordinator for the project, emphasized how Food on the Move has responded to complaints that some food desert initiatives fail to provide the produce that its ethnic patrons prefer. To accommodate Latino and Cape Verdean tastes, she pointed to cartons of such roots as yuca, llame, and yautia, which come from distributors in New York.
Jean Morris, 85, pushed her walker aside and sat down after buying some carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach and a lemon — "I like to put it in my tea."
Typically, a Medicare-provided assistant will take her grocery list to the supermarket to shop for her. But, Lima said, "I like to pick out what I want. It's nice to see what you're buying."
Besides, she added, "I got $5 [in Rhody Bucks] back."
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