The Flint Fresh Mobile Market doesn’t just deliver fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains to city residents. It delivers hope and a chance for healthier futures.
Amber Hasan is an assistant manager at the market. She remembers an elderly woman “almost in tears” the first day the market visited her senior center. Wheelchair-bound and trying to follow a mostly vegan diet, it could sometimes take her up to six hours to get groceries, relying on the kindness of a friend to drive her to various stops.
“It gives her the opportunity to still eat the way she wants to eat without having to worry about getting there,” Hasan said of the market stops, which visit prominent Flint employers, community and senior centers and schools in the city.
When Flint’s water made headlines due to contamination in 2016, nutrient-rich foods were identified as a critical tool in combatting lead toxicity for residents, particularly children. A number of organizations mobilized to fill the need, including the mobile market, which started rolling in August 2016, with help from a $50,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan grant. Since then, it has significantly improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and whole grains.
Local experts say residents’ ability to eat healthy wasn’t a new problem, but that new innovations such as the mobile market were sorely needed.
“Access to healthy foods here in Flint has been an issue for a long time,” said Alisa Craig, Wellness and Population Health Administrator at Hurley Medical Center.
Craig explained that economic downturn led major grocery stores to pull out of the market, leaving many Flint residents living in what is known as a food desert. Combine widespread poverty with a lack of access to transportation and suddenly, fast and convenience foods might be the best options people have for feeding their families.
This lack of quality food factors into Genesee County’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. As of the 2010 census, it ranked 81 out of 82 counties in the state for positive health outcomes.
To help combat this and to empower Flint residents to take charge of their health, an additional $24,750 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation is being used for wraparound education and health services at specific market stops. Tips from nutrition experts and easily accessible lessons will be provided on topics such as food preparation, healthy eating, fitness and insurance guidance.
“It’s about baby steps,” Hasan said. “If I normally eat out three times a day, what if I cook one of those meals instead? Or, if I normally eat fried foods, how about if I bake my food this time.”
Eventually, services such as blood pressure screenings and vaccinations may be added as the program continues to evolve. An official Flint Fresh app is coming soon and a second bus will be ready in July, doubling the market’s impact in the community. Residents can even sign up for box delivery options, which means fresh produce and the tools to make a healthy meal are delivered right to their door.
Pam Bailey, director of Fundraising and Public Relations for the YMCA of Greater Flint, said one of the most important jobs for market employees is rebuilding trust with Flint residents who feel spurned and forgotten due to the water crisis. By making weekly stops, she’s hopeful relationships will form and the health education will sink in and filter through friends, families and co-workers.
“Trust is a huge issue in this community,” Bailey said.
Jay Paul just started working at the mobile market as an assistant. The 21-year-old sees his adopted hometown of Flint as an underdog rising.
Paul relays the hurdles he and other Flint residents have had to contend with as their drinking, cooking and bathing water turned out to be unusable. Things that used to be simple, such as boiling water for pasta, require a bit more effort and forethought. Still, he said that doesn’t stop him and the other residents of the city from moving forward and he sees efforts such as the market as positive steps in the city’s recovery.
He’s hopeful that momentum will help Flint rebuild and he wants to be a part of it, with plans to start a creative agency representing local artists.
“I think Flint has a really bright future,” Paul said.
To find out where the market will be next, visit the organization’s Facebook page.
Main image and Flint Fresh logo courtesy of Flint Fresh Mobile Market.