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A Fresh Idea to Improve Food Access

Every Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., a school bus parks outside the South End Community Health Center in Boston, opens its doors, and invites local residents to come inside and purchase groceries.

Fresh Truck is more than just a mobile supermarket, however; the nonprofit is working to get nutritious foods into the hands of people who lack access. Unlike traditional supermarkets, the shelves of the old bus are stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and devoid of salt- and sugar-laden processed foods; shoppers can use cash, debit/credit, and EBT state welfare benefit payment cards.

Executive director Josh Trautwein came up with the idea for a mobile fresh food market while coordinating nutrition education for a Boston health center. “At the time, the only grocery store in the neighborhood closed down, so there was a big gap in our programming,” he recalled. “We were encouraging families to eat healthier, but there was nowhere close by for them to shop.”

Fresh Truck launched in 2013 with a mission to improve the health of Boston residents. The nonprofit’s two school bus-based markets make 11 stops throughout the city each week, mostly in low-income neighborhoods and food deserts where residents lack access to fresh foods and often resort to purchasing their groceries from corner stores with limited selection.

Betty Akpan says her diet has improved since she started receiving weekly $10 vouchers from South End Community Health Center in 2016. “I’m a senior citizen on a fixed income and the vouchers help a lot,” she said.

Thanks to the vouchers, Akpan can often purchase enough fruits and vegetables for several meals. Fresh Truck has a better selection than local food pantries (where Akpan can usually only get potatoes and onions) and the prices are lower than the local supermarket. “I use the vouchers and even spend a little of my own money when I have it,” she said. Convenience is also a factor: instead of taking a bus several stops to get to the supermarket, Akpan walks to Fresh Truck.

Health centers and social service agencies across Boston—including Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, Boston Medical Center HealthNet Plan, and Boston Centers for Youth and Families—underwrite the program, providing vouchers (that work like gift cards) to organizations such as schools, housing developments, and social service agencies to purchase produce from Fresh Truck.

To further its impact, Fresh Truck introduced FreshRx in 2015, a program that accepts “prescription” gift cards from local partners in exchange for produce. Through the program, healthcare partners identify a group of patients who receive a FreshRx card for $10 per week in groceries. Fresh Truck records the patient transactions and sends data back to healthcare providers to help them study outcomes.

To date, the nonprofit has sold more than $100,000 in fresh food through the FreshRx program.

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