As Maria Lynn Thomas prepares to step down as CEO of the Community FoodBank of San Benito, she hopes to accomplish one more goal: see a mobile farmers’ market roll through her community.
Under Maria’s leadership, “the food bank has gone from a place that didn’t know if the doors would stay open, to having a three-month cash reserve for operating expenses.”
Moreover, she has been the force behind kickstarting innovative projects that strive to give residents the power and dignity of shopping for themselves.
Among them, incorporating a mobile farmers’ market to their programming for residents to be able to receive fresh produce at their doorstep.
“What I learned when I started in this job, five and half years ago, is that finding the healthiest food is not exactly the highest priority when you’re trying to make ends meet,” Maria says.
Listening to residents’ stories, and putting herself in their shoes, she made it her mission to reach more people and help build dignity through the power of choice.
A tale of two cities
Located in the Coast Range Mountains of California, San Benito county presents a unique scenario that makes equal access to healthy food difficult.
Mainly a rural community of 60,000 people, scattered through a large but narrow geographic area, the county is a two-hour drive from Silicon Valley.
Every day, many professionals commute up to the valley; many others stay in town to work at service or retail jobs, which are the lowest-paying jobs. Several others are migrant workers that work on ranches.
“We are a split community, it’s kind of like a tale of two cities,” Maria says.
The southern half of the county is a food desert. And with few to no grocery stores in the northern half of the city, residents’ challenges in accessing healthy food also lie in their ability to afford these options: the healthier the food, the more expensive it is.
Get the food out to the people
Through partnering with a local college a couple of years ago, a statistics class did a satisfaction survey of Community FoodBanks customers.
The results showed that a large percentage of them faced barriers to getting to the food bank every week. The main difficulties were transportation and scheduling issues.
That got Maria thinking “we don’t want to build a mecca where everyone in the county has to come to us because that simply is not possible.”
The silver lining: “We need to get the food out to the people. We’re pretty much reaching out to everyone who can get themselves here. Now we have to figure out how we can get to them,” Maria says.
That’s when the idea for a Mobile Farmers’ Market was born.
Check out Mobile Farmers’ Market Leaders in Increasing Healthy Food Access
From idea to reality
As Maria searched for mobile pantry models, she found models that allowed the food bank to deliver the produce, but nothing matched her vision.
“Everything I saw was a box truck that would set up tables, and they just had beat-up looking boxes of food set out. People would come and get the food that way. And there wasn’t any way I was gonna do that,” she says.
“Our mission, the first statement of our mission is building dignity. Because we believe dignity is just as important as food. It’s equally as important how you get the food to people than the food itself.”
It wasn’t until she stumbled upon a picture of how a Toronto woman had retrofitted a municipal bus into a mobile pantry that she finally saw her vision materialize and confirmed “this can be done. This is possible. Somebody has done this.”
Soon after, through a visit to California, Maria and The Farmers’ Truck got in contact. “It was exactly what we were looking for: it’s what The Farmers’ Truck builds,” Maria says.
“We will go to you”
“We’re changing the expectation that to get food, you have to come to the food bank, and if you can’t figure out how to do that, then you’re basically out of luck,” she says.
The Community FoodBank of San Benito Mobile Market will soon make its way through the county, delivering fresh, affordable food to residents through morning and afternoon routes, four days a week.
“We will go to you. And we will go to you with a bag of food that has been pre-selected for you. We are going to you with this choice market, that is a market on wheels, where you’ll be able to shop, just like anyone would at a grocery store.”
“It’s flipping that charity upside down. And that’s what I love about it too,” Maria added.
Did you like this story? Check out the previous article from our Inspiring Changemaker Series: Andy Ollove: Fighting for Social Justice — One Veggie at a Time
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