Two JMU seniors have spent over a year working on a project to help introduce families to fresh produce that has been unfamiliar to them in the past. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.
It’s a warm spring evening in a neighborhood in downtown Harrisonburg. The Gus Bus, a beloved mobile literacy program that serves children around the city, has pulled in and opened the doors to the kids and families waiting. They have brought along “The Good Food Truck” - a mobile pantry of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
On the Gus Bus, the instructors are providing story time, activities, and book checkouts for the kids, while outside the bus, families are tasting samples and picking out fresh produce to cook at home.
This program, called the Neighborhood Produce Market, was started three years ago to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families in need. It is a partnership between The Gus Bus, JMU, and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
Jolynne Bartley is the Assistant Director of Children and Youth Services for The Gus Bus. She says that the Neighborhood Market was an idea born out of a program to provide backpacks full of food to send home with children on the weekends.
They started to hear that families - especially refugees and immigrants - were used to cooking with fresh produce, and they wanted to start providing it to families in need over the summer months.
BARTLEY: Interacting with families - with our staff - were basically communicating that fresh food was very much a part of a lot of the cultural diets of families that we work with and something that they were accustomed to in their home country, something that they really enjoy cooking with, and that wasn’t something we were really providing for them. And they weren’t always able to have as easy access to a resource like that.
Eileen Emerson is the Partner Services Coordinator for Child Nutrition Programs at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
She says that the Neighborhood Market now serves over 250 families a month.
One small problem popped up over the last three years. They noticed that certain fruits and vegetables weren’t being taken and found that most didn’t know what they were or how to incorporate them into their cooking.
Enter two JMU dietetic students - Lexi Lepecha and Kat Kraft. The seniors went to work creating a new program - offering samples and recipes for produce that was often left sitting there.
EMERSON: We are so lucky to have a partnership with JMU like we do. Kay and Lexi, who are the two students who started this program as their senior thesis and senior project, really went above and beyond in terms of researching ‘what are the best ways to communicate with families, what are the skills that people really need to know, what types of vegetables or fruits do people not know what to do with.’ We did evaluations last year, and 65% of our clients said that they had tried new produce because of coming to the markets. I attribute that to the work that our dietetic students did.
Jennifer Walsh is an Assistant Professor of Dietetics and Undergraduate Program Director at JMU.
She says that Lepecha and Kraft dived into the project - and for over a year, figured out what foods were not being taken. They experimented with samples and recipes to hand out at neighborhood markets and dealt with issues such as food safety.
WALSH: This is really, to me, a high level project that they both have taken incredible leadership on. There’s something to be said also about their work to facilitate - to bring around the stakeholders, to have kind of drive this process and so that we do have a much more viable outcome that is hopefully more valuable to the community.
Lepetcha says that they didn’t realize there might be a language barrier they would have to overcome.
LEPETCHA: In broadcasting our samples, for example, we could be like ‘oh, try our samples’ and sometimes they may not understand or they may think we want them to pay for it, so we have definitely tried to create less of a language barrier by providing recipes that are in different languages, so we have Spanish, English and Arabic right now.
Kraft says that they hope their work continues to help people find new ways of cooking fresh produce long after they graduate.
KRAFT: That’s our main goal. I mean, our professor is actually going to be doing some more research on this in the upcoming year. I think it will definitely grow and expand. That’s what I foresee anyway, and so do The Gus Bus and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank staff as well. So we are really excited about it.
Emerson notes that their hard work has made the program a success, but also says that The Gus Bus is what brings people out to the market.
EMERSON: We could not have this program without the Gus Bus and the relationship they had already built with these families. The reason families are willing to come out to the market is because the Gus Bus has created an environment that is respectful and fun and passionate, and they know that if the Gus Bus says it’s okay, then it really is okay.
Reporting for WMRA, I’m Bridget Manley.