The Rapidian

Veggie Van brings fresh local produce to the NE side of town

The YMCA mobile farmers market, otherwise known as the Veggie Van, now providing access to affordable, healthy produce at Pilgrim Manor.
Sara Vander Zanden and Leticia De La Paz are the Veggie Van team

Sara Vander Zanden and Leticia De La Paz are the Veggie Van team /Jonathan Timothy Stoner

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Veggie Van Schedule

MONDAYS

10 a.m.- 12:30 p. m. MetroHealth Community Clinic

1:30-2:30 p. m. Pilgrim Manor

TUESDAYS

Every Tuesday

12:30-1:30 p.m. Baxter Community Center

4:00-5:00 p.m. Cesar E. Chavez Elementary

The 1st Tuesday of the month

2:00-3:00 p.m.  Reflections: A Senior Community

The 2nd Tuesday of the month

2:00-3:00 p.m. Herkimer Apartments

The 3rd Tuesday of the month

2:00-3:00 p.m. VerneBarry Place

The 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month

11:00 a.m.-noon M-TEC 622 Godfrey Ave SW

WEDNESDAYS

Every Wednesday

10:00 a.m.-noon SECOM

12:45-1:15 p.m. Delaware Manor

1:30-2:30 p.m. Campau Commons

4:30-5:30 p.m. MLK Leadership Academy

The 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month

3:00-4:00 p.m. Mulick Park Elementary

The 3rd Wednesday of the month

2:45-3:15 p.m. GR Spring and Stamping

THURSDAYS

The 3rd Thursday of the month

11:15 a.m.-noon Wolverine Coil Spring

1:30-2:30 p.m. Sheldon Apartments

The 4th Thursday of the month

12:30-2 p.m. Lowell Farmers Market

FRIDAYS

Every Friday

11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. GE Aviation

The 1st and 3rd Friday of the month

2:00-4:00 p.m. Goodwill, 54th Street Location

2nd and 4th Friday of the month

2:00-4:00 p.m. Goodwill, 29th Street Location

The Veggie Van

The Veggie Van /Jonathan Timothy Stoner

Fresh organic veggies

Fresh organic veggies /Jonathan Timothy Stoner

The YMCA Veggie Van, touted as “West Michigan's first and only mobile farmers market,” is out visiting between 15 to 18 sites in Grand Rapids every week. In May they branched out beyond the SE neighborhoods. They added their first site on the NE side, the Pilgrim Manor Retirement Community.

“This is our second newest site, so we’ve just been coming here since May,” says Sara Vander Zanden, YMCA Healthy Living Agriculture Manager, who runs the Veggie Van program. Pilgrim Manor sees the Veggie Van as a way for their residents and employees to have easier access to fresh food that is both affordable and local. According to Carol Parsaca, the Sustainability Manager at Pilgrim Manor, the feedback from the residents has been mostly positive.

“They ask me about it all the time,” says Parsaca. “A lot of our residents grew up on farms so they know they have that direct tie and they’re happy that we’re bringing that back especially to younger generations that work here.” Every Monday from 1:30 to 2:30 in the afternoon, tables stocked with fresh produce fill the lobby at the manor. When they first started coming to the Manor they were setting up outside. Realizing that it was hard for many residents to be outside in the intense heat, they adjusted their programming to better serve the residents.

“So we came inside and we’ve done a lot better since coming in,” says Vander Zanden. The Veggie Van is already getting repeat business from employees, residents and community members that shop there loyally.

“At all of our sites [the] regulars suggest that we have certain products and so then we ask our farmers if we can get them. It’s a really reciprocal relationship and we try to meet demand,” says Vander Zanden.

Vander Zanden sees a lot of potential for the Veggie Van program, and is looking to develop further with more sites, more people at each site, and more products.

“Right now we don’t have a license to cut up anything for people,” says Vander Zanden. They have applied for a license that will allow them to have products like prepared salads to go, veggie wraps and fruit cups.

“Here the residents don’t have kitchens in their rooms,” says Vander Zanden, “so having a watermelon that’s already cut up and they don’t need a huge knife for, that would be nice and we’ll be able to serve even more people.”

One of the most surprising things that the Veggie Van team has noticed is that people want local organic produce in the highest need and lowest income neighborhoods – and they are willing to pay for it.

“We have the conventional broccoli and the organic broccoli,” says Vander Zanden. “We sell it side by side and people will take the funny looking organic broccoli over pretty perfect conventional broccoli. We sell a lot of that in a day and sometimes we can’t even get rid of the conventional. So that’s been a really cool thing to learn.”

The aims of the Veggie Van are two-fold: to provide access to fresh organic produce to people who wouldn’t normally have access or be able to afford it, and also to provide education. At the sites where they spend longer periods of time, they do demonstrations.

“We’ll do really weird things, like we’ll do zucchini fritters and we’ll stuff the little baby bell peppers with garlic and cream cheese and ricotta cheese and people are excited to try it,” says Vander Zanden.

The Veggie Van accepts SNAP Bridge Cards, WIC benefits, Senior Project FRESH coupons, and Double Up Food Bucks, at all of their sites including Pilgrim Manor. At many of their sites some form of food assistance comprises half of their sales.

“[This] is awesome because that shows us that we really are serving a community that needs it,” says Vander Zanden. The YMCA Veggie Van also supports local family farms, and they are year round thanks to a partnership with the GVSU Agriculture Project’s hoop house. Their main organic produce suppliers are John and Katie Richardson, of “R” Farm Gardens and Market in Belding. The Richardsons provide the Veggie Van’s broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes, just to name a few.

“They’re such an awesome couple. It’s fun to build relationships in the Grand Rapids community, but it’s been really rewarding to build relationships with the farmers too,” says Vander Zanden.

In addition to having the Veggie Van mobile market, they also have a weekly seasonal Farmers Market at the Downtown David D. Hunting YMCA every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. On a normal week this boutique market boasts a dozen vendors with a wide variety of locally grown produce for sale.

“One of the coolest things about that has been seeing Grand Rapids' urban and rural communities come together,” says Vander Zanden. “Those are two communities in West Michigan that are often totally secluded from one another and seeing Grand Rapids center residents come to the Farmers Market every week, the farmers know them by name and they know what they like. They ask them if they made the stuffed squash, and ‘What did you do with the little baby bell peppers?’ Hearing those interactions has been awesome and I know it’s been really rewarding for the farmers too.”

A full list of scheduled locations for the Veggie Van can be found on the YMCA website.

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