Mobile food markets bring fresh produce to where it’s needed most

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If you are trying to find the Good Food Bus in the Lewiston neighborhoods, don’t look for a real bus. It’s more like a traveling farm stall with large windows, where market leaders Jay Fiori and Sophia Gamache help people select local fruits, vegetables, eggs and honey.

When customers look out the windows for fresh produce, they will find prices similar to those in the grocery store; However, if they are members of Good Food Bus, they will get a 50% discount on everything and membership is free.

“Free memberships and point-of-sale discounts were established after conversations with the community,” said Price Hulin, Good Food Bus program coordinator. Members keep punch cards to track their purchases, receive SMS reminders of the bus schedule, and links to healthy recipes that can easily be made from products sold.

A Good Food Bus customer shows off green onions and kale after leaving. Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center.

Hulin said that member engagement makes shopping more of an experience and increases the likelihood of customers coming back. “And who wouldn’t like to be able to buy local fruits and vegetables, at half price, in their neighborhood! he added. “The people of Maine have a high level of enthusiasm and a willingness to connect with each other that I really admire. This makes the Good Food Bus a real community hub.

The Good Food Bus was started by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in 2015, with help from the Cultivating Community, a Portland-based nonprofit, and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, which funds mobile food markets. in New England. Overall, St. Mary’s Nutrition Center has a simple but huge goal of helping people grow, access, and purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. This is an important mission given that households in Maine have a rate of food insecurity above the national average, and is particularly relevant in Lewiston, where nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty.

In 1999, St. Mary’s started Lots to Gardens, a community garden program still in operation in Lewiston that helps townspeople access plots to grow their own food. As a young woman, Kirsten Walter was one of the first employees of Lots to Gardens and her deep experience and knowledge of food access issues in the Lewiston area grew with the organization. Today she is the director of what has become St. Mary’s Nutrition Center.

In recent years, the Nutrition Center has broadened its scope of access to land, moving from small urban gardens to larger rural farms. In 2019, St. Mary’s hosted a Farmland Access Conference to help the Somali Bantu Community Association acquire more than 100 acres that would later become liberation farms in Wales. Knowing that fresh produce is the foundation of whole body health, smart investments have lasting effects. Walter said that every summer, the pantries at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center experience a decline in use due to the ability of people to grow their own food.

But not everyone who needs fresher, healthier food doesn’t have the skills, time, and / or the ability to grow their own, which is why the Good Food Bus brings fresh, affordable produce to their homes. A weekly stop is at Blake Street Towers, an apartment building for the elderly and / or disabled. The bus provides a convenient, no-trip shopping trip for fresh food that people can rely on.

“St. Mary’s is in a constant process of change, testing and responding to emerging needs as the conditions for hunger are constantly changing with the market,” said Walter. “We always check to make sure we are meeting the need. “

Jay Fiori replenishes lettuce at the Good Food Bus. Most of the produce is grown locally at Emery Family Farm, Fresh Start Farms and Liberation Farms. Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center.

The Good Food Bus will be on the move in Lewiston until October. It stops at one to three locations per day, with hours at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center on Bates Street from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday. Most of the produce comes from Emery Family Farm, a small-scale farm in Wayne, or from Fresh Start Farms, a farmer training program in Lisbon.

“There are a lot of new Americans in the Fresh Start Farms program and they have a cooperative selling model,” Hulin said. “We buy wholesale from them, and we’ve just started buying what we can from Liberation Farms as well. Buy from any local farm when you can. They need our support.

Lewiston recently received a HUD Choice Neighborhoods grant, federal funding that will invest in child care, workforce preparation and improving neighborhood infrastructure. Walter said she is looking forward to a community food center, which is expected to be a multi-purpose space with a cooperative grocery store, a shared commercial kitchen with cold and dry food storage space, all located on the first floor of a new apartment building to be completed in 2024.

“Lewiston is an exciting place,” Walter said. “The surrounding farmland is unique, there is a network of urban gardens. We want to continue to link this dynamic city center to agricultural strategies, responding to emergency needs but also strengthening sustainability. “

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