*This is the second article in our three-part Inspiring Changemaker 2022 Series, where we highlight the amazing work of our clients and their food security efforts.*
When The Open Door in Massachusetts began operating a mobile farmers’ market truck in 2021, they were able to provide another solution to fight food insecurity and hunger in their community.
“The Farmers’ Truck puts our mobile market on wheels and strengthens our capacity to reach people where they gather, live, and learn,” said Julie LaFontaine, President and CEO of The Open Door. “This kind of food security infrastructure investment connects people to good food and pays big dividends in community health and wellbeing.”
Now, Julie and her team are dreaming of a world where solutions such as mobile markets are bountiful and the norm across North America.
“Mobile markets reduce barriers to access and alleviate the impact of hunger,” she said. “More mobile markets…would help level the playing field and build greater food equity to areas and populations that are underserved. Connecting more people to free, fresh, healthy produce – which often is too expensive for those struggling to put food on the table. (That) would promote improved health and wellbeing for those who are food insecure and often at risk for various health concerns due to lack of access.”
Practical strategies to connect people to good food
The Open Door is a food resource center. It serves communities of Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Hamilton, Wenham, Topsfield, Ipswich, Rowley, and Boxford. It also has food pantries in Gloucester and Ipswich, and mobile sites in Danvers and Lynn.
The mission of The Open Door is to alleviate the impact of hunger in its community. They use practical strategies to connect people to good food. They also advocate on behalf of those in need, and engage others in the work of building food security.
The nonprofit got its start in 1978 after a need for food resources was identified during the Blizzard of ‘78. The blizzard dropped up to 70 centimeters of snow in some states in the Northeast, killing 100 people and injuring thousands more.
Since then, The Open Door has grown significantly beyond food pantries and mobile markets. They also offer online ordering, contactless curbside pick-up and delivery, Community Meals, Medically Tailored Groceries, Summer Meals for Kids, and the Second Glance thrift store.
The Open Door has had a mobile market program since 2005, which initially served one neighborhood. It expanded to assist underserved neighborhoods, senior centers, schools, and community college campuses. The program provides qualifying individuals with up to 25 pounds of fresh produce and protein choices at no cost. They also provide nutrition education and outreach.
An innovative way to get more food to targeted areas
A few years ago, The Open Door was looking at innovative ways to get more food out to targeted areas of its community. This is when they learned what The Farmers’ Truck had to offer.
“We first heard about The Farmers’ Truck through the Greater Boston Food Bank,” said Lafontaine. “It was something we kept on the back burner for a couple of years, and then circled back around when it became apparent that COVID would change our delivery models for an extended period of time. The Farmers’ Truck presented the perfect solution to providing food in an inviting and safe way.”
“Acquiring the mobile market farmers’ truck enables The Open Door to get better, healthy food to more people by allowing the Mobile Market to travel farther and to more sites.”
COVID spurred funding to improve food accessibility
Lafontaine said the biggest key before acquiring a mobile market truck was securing the necessary funding. The Open Door obtained a Massachusetts Food Security Infrastructure grant to purchase the truck. This was, in part, made possible by local legislators who advocated at the state level for funding to support food security infrastructure, in the wake of the pandemic.
“We held a ribbon-cutting for our mobile market farmers’ truck in November, and were joined by Sen. Bruce Tarr, State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, and Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken,” said Lafontaine. “Sen. Tarr and Rep. Ferrante played a key role in securing Food Security Infrastructure grant funding at the state level, once they saw the impact the pandemic had on food insecurity locally.”
MA State Representative Ann Margaret Ferrante said the impact of food distribution issues was evident early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. They worked together to put in place Food Security Infrastructure grant funding so that food would be made more accessible.
“We’re able to create at the state level these opportunities and see them trickle down into the community,” Rep. Ferrante said. “We’re able to bring it from the state level to the local level, right down to your kitchen.”
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we did see, time and time again, the need to make sure food was getting to the people who need it…Food coming into Massachusetts needed to be distributed in a different way,” said MA State Senator Bruce Tarr, adding that throughout the pandemic, The Open Door evolved to meet challenges and remained open, never missing a day.
A huge need: 1 in 6 residents receive food assistance
Amid the initial waves of the pandemic, The Open Door had a 27% increase in requests for food assistance. By 2021, The Open Door served 1 in 6 residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had distributed 1.5 million meals to 8,516 people. The organization is again seeing a rise in food needs in 2022 due to inflation and rising fuel costs.
In 2021, The Open Door’s mobile market truck distributed approximately 179,000 pounds of food to 1,883 people. The organization expects its mobile market truck to reach even more people in 2022. This is because it will be the first full year the organization will have a truck for its mobile market program.
The Open Door has also begun collaborating with new partner organizations and sites to connect people to food they need. This includes a partnership with the North Shore Veterans’ Collaborative and expanding its partnership with North Shore Community College. As they expand their mobile market program, The Open Door is looking to hire a Mobile Market Coordinator.
‘Our clients are thrilled with the experience’
The Open Door mobile farmers’ market currently makes three weekly site visits to two schools and one neighborhood. The market also visits one bi-monthly site, and six monthly sites. In addition, they hold occasional special mobile market events at partner sites.
Featured on the mobile market truck are fresh fruits and vegetables, and other staples.
“We seek to offer a variety of in-season fruits and vegetables, as well as at least one protein and one dairy option,” said Lafontaine. “We also work to provide culturally appropriate food as part of our food equity commitment and have an initiative called New Americans. Old Traditions. And this gathers input on what foods to offer, and which recipes to feature from the diversity of our clients.”
The produce is grown locally and purchased wholesale, or is acquired from the local food bank. Lafontaine says the reaction of the community to having a mobile farmers’ market has been ‘spectacular’.
“Our clients are thrilled with the experience. Being able to walk up to the truck and choose the produce, protein, and dairy they want for their household – for free – elevates their experience and gives them choice. Our community partners are also thrilled at how the truck enhances our mobile market. (They are) ecstatic to be able to offer this resource for their communities, especially as inflation rises, and people continue to recover from the pandemic.”
An exciting new concept for some customers
Lafontaine said The Open Door mobile market program is longstanding. However, a mobile farmers’ truck is a new concept to some clients and an exciting one at that.
“There is a festive feeling when the truck rolls into a neighborhood and a joyous excitement when people see the quality and quantity of food we have to offer,” she said. “We also measure success through qualitative surveys. One unexpected result was learning that the food from the mobile market increased the times that families ate together at the table.”
Lafontaine said it’s easy to see how important the mobile market is for the community and the people it serves. She said one client impact story in particular sticks out in her mind.
“A United States Navy Veteran told us at a March 23 mobile market in Salem, Massachusetts that the produce is exactly what he needs as someone with diabetes. He added that he had just run out of food and would not get paid again until the next Friday.”
Making a positive impact on everyone involved
Lafontaine said The Farmers’ Truck has helped streamline their mobile market operation. The mobile market can travel farther and longer with more products, and elevates the experience of clients. And this results in grateful and engaged staff at The Open Door.
“As a result of these factors, our staff is incredibly happy to have The Farmers’ Truck to improve our operations and the service we offer our communities. We’re proud to be able to offer a high-quality farmers-market-like experience.
“Across the board, people are happy to have access to fresh, vibrant fruits and vegetables for themselves and their families. Our team members love to pack up the truck with brightly colored produce and healthy food choices knowing that they will be going out to meet people where they live, learn, and gather.”
If you’d like to operate a mobile farmers’ market, The Farmers’ Truck would love to work with you too! Check out our brochure to learn more.
To learn more about The Open Door mobile farmers’ truck schedule, visit: FOODPANTRY.org/mobilemarket