Mobile markets provide access to fresh produce in metro Atlanta food deserts

Phyllis Cain is smiling as she stirs a skillet of turkey and squash dinner. She’s one of several University of Georgia Extension staff cooking and serving healthy dishes at the kickoff of the 2018 season of DeKalb County’s mobile farmers market, Fresh on Dek.

“They love it,” she says about the recipe, which needs just five ingredients and 30 minutes to make a delicious dinner. “A lot of young people tell me they don’t like yellow squash, but, when they taste this, they love it, and it’s so easy to do.”

Each week, from June 5 through Sept. 21, the former prison truck, turned mobile food market, will travel the community Tuesday through Friday, visiting DeKalb county libraries, senior centers, churches, high schools and even Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

At each stop, the truck will carry at least 20 varieties of produce sourced locally from area farmers or the Atlanta State Farmers Market at Forest Park. Extension staff offer recipe demonstrations with printed recipes. Georgia Waldorf salad, with apples, pecans and low-fat vanilla yogurt? Check. Zucchini walnut bread, with whole wheat flour and 2 cups of grated zucchini? A favorite.

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Lynwood Blackmon, DeKalb County Extension coordinator, said the program, now in its fourth year, was designed to address food insecurity and provide access to fresh produce in areas that qualify as food deserts. “This is a partnership between UGA DeKalb Extension, DeKalb County government and the DeKalb Board of Health,” he said. “Programs like this help us change lives by changing how people view food, and even encouraging them to try new things. They see the demonstrations, and they find something that they didn’t like, or had never tried, is actually good.”

Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent Breeanna Williams explained that the Extension Service offers a curriculum designed for farmers markets, with eight different nutrition lessons. “Nutrition topics range from the benefits of shopping at a local farmers market to food safety to the importance of minerals like calcium in your diet.”

Participants who attend lessons also take home items such as reusable shopping bags and refrigerator thermometers.

Like Cain, what Williams enjoys most is that the shoppers often are eager to give the recipes a try. “We have a recipe for a cold black-eyed pea salad. That surprises people who are only used to eating black-eyed peas as a hot dish. But, with tomatoes, onions, bell pepper and a zesty dressing, they love it.”

Carole Guerin, of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Stone Mountain’s Rockmore Plaza Shopping Center, said they applied to be part of the Fresh on Dek program to complement what they’re able to offer the households that shop with them. “This is our first year as a stop. Most of what we have in the food pantry is canned goods, and we see this as a wonderful opportunity for our households to have access to fresh produce.”

Lou Walker Senior Center in Lithonia has been a Fresh on Dek stop for two years. “Our focus is on healthy living and physical activity for seniors. Many of our seniors may be limited in getting to a grocery store or farmers market,” said Aretha Releford, an adminstrator at the center. “So, what better way to assist them with getting and eating healthier than by having the mobile market stop here?”

The Fulton Fresh Mobile Market also operates seasonally.

“This year, our truck will be on the road for 10 weeks, making two stops a day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We visit each stop every other week, so we’ll stop at 12 different locations each two-week period,” said Vonsuela Baker, director of Fulton’s UGA Cooperative Extension.

At each stop, agents will demonstrate a recipe using fresh produce. Participants who sit through the demo and provide an evaluation receive a free bag of produce. “For example, a bag might contain squash, onions, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and maybe apples or oranges. We also hope to feature a local farmer at each stop. We’re working with Food Well Alliance to find farmers who can talk about growing food right here in metro Atlanta or in Georgia,” Baker said.

“We know nutrition affects health, so we are really glad the Neighborhood Union Health Center in Vine City will be a stop for the Fulton Fresh Mobile Market,” said Maia Fann, community liaison for Healing Community Centers. “They do a great job with the classes and, when people leave, you can hear them say, ‘I can do this at home.’”

Dorothy Mants, of Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church, said the church neighborhood has little mom-and-pop stores, but no major grocers. “I have to go to Cobb County or down to Cascade to do my grocery shopping. A lot of my seniors don’t have transportation, and can’t get to those stores. We’ll have 35 to 40 people come to the Fulton Fresh Mobile Market, because they enjoy listening to the lectures, and they enjoy learning how to prepare their vegetables without meat,” Mantz said.

The DeKalb and Fulton programs share a focus on putting fresh, quality produce in people’s hands. “If we can get them to change their eating habits, we can reduce the incidence of chronic diseases,” Fulton’s Baker said. “For many, when they leave their homes, the only food sources they see may be the corner store or a fast food restaurant. Our truck is just one vehicle to get people closer to eating healthy.”