Durham News

Oases on wheels reaching Durham’s ‘food deserts’

Operations Manager Anita Woodley unloads sweet potato pies under the Grocers on Wheels tent. The mobile farmers’ market is starting monthly stops at the Durham Arts Council and Healing With CAARE this month.
Operations Manager Anita Woodley unloads sweet potato pies under the Grocers on Wheels tent. The mobile farmers’ market is starting monthly stops at the Durham Arts Council and Healing With CAARE this month. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Tony Caldwell walked into the downtown library and stopped short at what he saw. It wasn’t books.

“Did I come on the right day or what?” he said. “Can I get a bag full of vegetables?”

Yes – was the answer.

There they were, set out in plastic bins, just inside the doorway off the parking lot: kale, carrots, onions, turnip greens, sweet potatoes large and small, radishes, apples in three varieties.

“We’re Veggie Van,” Casey Horvitz told him.

Horvitz is project manager for the Veggie Van, a mobile farmers’ market that sets up shop at four Durham locations and lays out a selection of whatever is fresh at the time from nearby farms. It, and the similar enterprise Grocers on Wheels, might be thought of as oases in the city’s “food deserts” – areas without ready access to fresh and healthy food.

Neither the Veggie Van ( nando.com/veggie) nor Grocers on Wheels ( nando.com/grocers) is new, but both have expanded, or are about to expand, their services in Durham – taking produce close to home and to places people go for social services.

Using a $25,000 grant from Whole Foods Market, the Raleigh-based Grocers on Wheels starts two visits a month to downtown Durham this week. The Durham County health department gave $15,000 to Veggie Van, operated by the Durham nonprofit Community Nutrition Partnership.

That money allowed the Van to start weekly markets at three new sites in January. A fourth opens this spring, said Kelly Warnock, the department’s manager for health promotion programs.

“There’s been a lot of focus lately ... on access to food and how access to food, or lack of access to food, affects health,” Warnock said.

“We’re trying to help different communities have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and then also try to decrease other barriers such as transportation (and) costs,” she said.

“The idea,” said Horvitz, “is to make produce affordable for low-income people, and to make produce more accessible than just farmers’ markets.”

Veggie Van

The Veggie Van started in 2011. Like a conventional “community supported agriculture” (CSA) service, customers can buy “shares” and receive a weekly delivery of fresh produce either at their place of work, or pick up up at one of the market stops, such as the public library, where separate items are also available for sale.

“People pay what they can afford,” Horvitz said.

Shares come in large (enough to last three to five people a week) and small (two or three people) sizes, at three price points. Regular price for a large share is $22, but there is a “community supported” price of $15 for those who cannot afford the full price – break-even for the Veggie Van, Horvitz said.

Shoppers who can afford to pay more than regular price are invited to donate when they pick up their shares.

“People who pay at a little bit of a high price end up supporting people who pay at a lower price,” Horvitz said. “It’s kind of a challenging model.”

The Veggie Van began weekly stops at the Human Services Building on East Main Street in 2013, and is there each Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Since January, it’s also stopped at the Walltown Recreation Center, 4 to 6 p.m. Fridays; the Duke Family Medicine Center, 3 to 5 p.m. Thursdays; and the library, 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays. Horvitz said they also plan to start visiting the Lincoln Community Health Center this spring.

Grocers on Wheels

Grocers on Wheels has a longer history, according to co-founder Demetrius Hunter.

“My dad, with his mule and cart, back in the Depression – he and his brother ... sold directly to southeast Raleigh residents,” Hunter said. “I worked with him for 10 years, and that was helpful to me.”

His father’s example led Hunter and Anita Woodley to start Grocers on Wheels in 2013, taking produce for sale into a southeast Raleigh area when its only supermarket closed – leaving the area a food desert.

Hunter said his prices are “affordable and convenient” – he takes advantage of relationships with growers his father developed over the years. Grocers on Wheels makes deliveries, but its main model is driving up with a truck load of produce and setting up shop on the spot.

“Our food is just as fresh as the farm,” he said.

He’s made trips into Durham in the past – there’s a regular stop each fourth Thursday, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Sisters Network on Fayetteville Street – but with the Whole Foods grant he and Woodley are adding the Durham Arts Council, noon to 4 p.m., each third Thursday (starting this week) and Healing with CAARE, noon to 3 p.m., each fourth Wednesday (starting Feb. 24).

“We are still adding places in our expansion and learning where we are most needed in Durham,” Woodley said.


Price and convenience are two benefits programs such as Veggie Van and Grocers have to offer.

“I eat mostly vegetables. It’s good for you,” said Joy Albright, who came from Hillsborough to the Veggie Van at the Durham library last week. Otherwise, fresh produce is hard to find for what she pays at the mobile market.

“It’s really convenient for me,” said Jan Martell, who was shopping at the library last week. “I just live a couple of blocks (away), and I can go to the library and get vegetables at the same time.”

Programs such as Veggie Van and Grocers on Wheels “are really great and far-reaching,” said Wanona Satcher of the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services department, who is working on a “food strategy” for Durham.

“To have mobile units actually go into neighborhoods of need makes it a lot easier to get the food there,” Satcher said. “Especially in food deserts.”

Durham has a lot of food deserts, said Warnock, at the county health department. A U.S. Department of Agriculture online map ( nando.com/deserts) shows much of inner-city Durham as a low-income area without nearby sources of fresh produce.

That makes fresh-food access a concern for the health department, which is taking various approaches to improve the situation.

“You typically don’t think of going into these gas stations and finding a whole lot of healthy food, so we’re trying to partner with different convenience stores to increase people’s access,” Warnock said.

And last week, the health department’s prenatal clinic began writing prescriptions for fresh food, which expecting mothers can fill at the Veggie Van for a $2.50 co-pay. The pilot project is paid for with money from a state Public Health Association endowment.

“As a health department, we can’t get people food, but we can help the agencies that do,” Warnock said. “We’ve been working on it for a number of years – it’s just now all coming together.”