The Good Food Truck: Preserving Produce Access for Families during COVID-19

by Eileen Emerson Program Coordinator, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

2020 was going to be the best year yet for the Neighborhood Produce Markets.

Back in 2017, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank started partnering with the Gus Bus, a mobile literacy program that visits around 15 neighborhood sites in the city of Harrisonburg over the course of a week to provide client-choice produce markets to predominantly immigrant communities.  We carted the food around in SUVs and set up folding tables beside the Gus Bus, and we thought we’d serve a maximum of 90 families each month.

By the end of 2019, we had a snazzy, walk-through Good Food Truck; we were reaching over 300 families a month; and we were greeted at each neighborhood by running, shouting kids.  We partnered with two professors from James Madison University to do a robust evaluation of client satisfaction, with some recommendations that we planned to implement after our winter hiatus ended in March.  We were fully funded, and in July 2020 we would have an in-house AmeriCorps VISTA to lead volunteer recruitment and sustainability planning.

Depending on your personality, here is where you either cackle or shake your head in sympathy, because we all know what comes next.

Pandemic conditions struck at the core of our program distribution model.  We wanted to keep families, volunteers, and staff safe and healthy, especially since the city of Harrisonburg was becoming a national hotspot of per-capita coronavirus infections.  At the same time, we knew that access to free, fresh produce would be more important now than ever, especially for immigrant households that may well not have been eligible for the CARES Act stimulus checks or other benefits, like SNAP.

Our primary concerns with our existing program model were:

  • Lots of touching (and breathing on) produce in a client-choice style distribution
  • A confined truck with little ventilation
  • Communicating social distancing guidelines with very limited staff in an outdoor space that we couldn’t create markers for in time (as soon as kids see the food truck, they come running) especially:
    • From a distance
    • Through masks
    • Through potential language barriers (even with translations and interpreters, which we work hard to provide, there are 57 languages spoken in the city public schools)
    • To excited, young children

So, to try to preserve families’ access to fresh produce while keeping them as safe as possible, we:

  • Partnered with the city schools during their regular drive-thru meal distributions at two elementary schools. Since going directly into neighborhoods for a walk-up style distribution wasn’t an option, we wanted to go where families were already traveling.
  • Distributed Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) boxes of fresh produce to families by placing them into families’ cars, in the trunk, or backseat. We served 400 kids.
  • Communicated other food access points through both the Gus Bus and BRAFB social media
  • Handed out Virginia state park parking passes in conjunction with the Federation of Virginia Food Banks to encourage families to get some socially distanced time outside

We have had to sacrifice some of the elements of this program—client choice, the neighborhood stops—that I felt most protective of.  As we have gotten our sea legs with the pandemic, I am hoping that we can bring back those pieces even if we have to settle for the “lite” version (e.g. clients tell us if they don’t want a particular item and we pack their bags on site).

But I don’t know what this program will look like in September; Harrisonburg City schools will be entirely online for the fall semester, and, despite Virginia’s progression through reopening phases, the virus seems to be becoming more widespread, not less.  The most important thing, and my greatest hope, is that we continue to find ways to help families have one less thing on their metaphorical plates by making sure their actual plates are full.

Originally from Tennessee, Eileen Emerson currently serves as the Program Coordinator for Child Nutrition Programs at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Virginia.  In her free time, Eileen enjoys bad food puns and cross-stitching.