Market on wheels

Published 10:35 pm Friday, May 6, 2016

The Suffolk Cooperative Extension Office’s new mobile farmers market, similar to the one pictured, will begin selling local produce in Suffolk’s food deserts in August.

The Suffolk Cooperative Extension Office’s new mobile farmers market, similar to the one pictured, will begin selling local produce in Suffolk’s food deserts in August.

Think of it as a farmers market on wheels — and come August, it may be rolling your way.

Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Obici Healthcare Foundation, the Suffolk Cooperative Extension Office’s new mobile farmers market will hit the streets late this summer, said extension agent Marcus Williams.

“That will make me one happy girl,” said Ruby Evans, an East Suffolk Gardens resident who attended the extension office’s healthy cooking demonstrations last summer. When she was a child, she recalls her parents buying fresh produce off a farmer’s truck that drove through her community regularly.

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“That will make it easier to eat healthy foods,” she said. “A lot of senior citizens don’t have any way to get out to buy fresh produce.”

The vehicle — which will resemble the increasingly popular food trucks popping up around Hampton Roads — is being made now by a Texas company, Williams said. Bins of fresh, local produce will hang off the side of the truck.

Ninety percent of the produce will come from within a 60-mile radius of Suffolk, Williams said. He expanded the radius to 85 miles for the remaining 10 percent, an allowance he is making so that crops that don’t grow well in Hampton Roads — such as apples — can be sold.

“My definition of local means that it comes from within your state,” Williams said.

Between August and January, the mobile market will make bi-weekly visits to Suffolk’s four food deserts: Chuckatuck/Hobson, Holland, Whaleyville and downtown Suffolk, Williams said. Specific sites have not yet been determined, he said.

Beginning next year, the mobile market will be on the road from April to January.

Food deserts are communities where residents have a difficult time getting fresh fruits and vegetables because they live more than one mile from a grocery store in urban areas and in rural areas, more than 10 miles, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With the exception of downtown Suffolk, most of Suffolk’s food deserts are rural, outlying communities.

Many residents in Suffolk’s food deserts lack both the transportation and financial resources to access fresh produce, Williams said. As a result, people often make poor decisions about what they eat, which in turn leads to high rates of obesity and diabetes, he said.

In Suffolk, 32 percent of adults battle obesity, slightly higher that the 29-percent statewide rate, according to Virginia Cooperative Extension. The percentage of families living below the federal poverty level for Suffolk and Virginia are both approximately 11 percent, according to the state extension department.

“There is a direct correlation between low income and unhealthy food choices,” said Williams.

Williams says he is battling a stigma that farmers markets are more expensive than supermarkets.

“People think things at farmers markets are going to be priced out of their range but that’s not always true,” he said. The mobile market will be equipped to accept government food assistance — also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — cards.

Several local extension offices have donated time and resources to the project, including Franklin, Newport News, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Sussex County.