GARDNER — The Montachusett Mobile Market is looking for a convenient spot to park next spring, with the goal of providing fresh, locally grown, healthy food to residents who might not otherwise have access to it.
Although the produce truck has been visiting the campus of Mount Wachusett Community College and Heywood Hospital each week for the last few months, officials with the Leominster-based Growing Places said they would be seeking out a centralized location to visit once a week as soon as the weather begins to warm up in the spring.
Executive Director Ayn Yeagle said the nonprofit Growing Spaces began 18 years ago when a small number of volunteers began building gardens for low-income households. The group focused mainly on communities in Fitchburg, Leominster and Clinton, namely because those were the towns where most of their volunteers lived.
Yeagle, who said she first joined the group about two years ago, had been in charge of delivering Meals on Wheels to residents in Gardner and Winchendon.
“So I knew the nutrition-related chronic conditions and the food insecurity in the area,” Yeagle explained, adding that the communities of Gardner and Winchendon had been designated as “food deserts,” which is defined as a community without access to fresh produce as determined by income and distance to the nearest supermarket. She said the Growing Places board made a decision in 2018 to expand their services to include those two communities.
Volunteers got to work right away. In Gardner, they helped build a garden in the courtyard at the high school. Produce grown from that garden is now sold at mobile markets at Heywood Hospital and Mount Wachusett Community College, Yeagle said.
“We just want everybody who is able to get the food that they need in a way that works for them,” Yeagle said.
They also created the mobile market “Because we realized that food insecurity and people who don’t have resources probably don’t have transportation either, so we wanted to be able to bring our fresh produce to make it easier for people to access it.”
Mayor Mark Hawke said he applauded the decision for Growing Places to bring their Montachusett Mobile Market to the city.
“The goal is to bring healthy food to low-access, low-income communities and provide them with the opportunity to purchase fresh, healthy food,” Hawke said, adding that he hopes members of the public will offer their suggestions for the best place to host the mobile market truck in the community, provided it’s a centralized location with easy accessibility for anyone in the city who would like to visit.
Hawke stressed the fact that the mobile market is not intended to compete with the city’s farmers’ market, which is held at Monument Park every Thursday during the warmer weather months.
“This just offers another alternative to those that may not be able to get to the farmers’ market in Monument Park,” Hawke said. “I’d like to see it located in the spots around the city that work best for everyone and where it will be most utilized.”
Living in a food desert doesn’t just mean residents do not have easy access to healthy, nutritional food. The areas also score high on the food insecurity chart, and are usually home to higher chronic diseases rates related to nutritional deficiencies, according to Yeagle.
“So there are higher-than-average rates of nutrition-related chronic diseases in Gardner and Winchendon, things like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and certain types of cancer. It’s all of our food desert regions that have the highest chronic disease rates,” Yeagle said.
Easy accessibility is not the only benefit for people who purchase their fresh produce from the mobile market. The Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (known as HIP) doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds at local food retail access points, according to Yeagle.
“That means that anybody who uses SNAP benefits (at our mobile market) can double their SNAP dollars,” Yeagle said. “So basically they purchase a head of lettuce for $2, and then they get the $2 right back on their SNAP card, so it was like they never purchased anything.” She said the basic idea is to encourage more low-income residents to purchase more fruits and vegetables to maintain their health.
“Fruits and vegetables are some of the most fundamental things you need for your health and nutrition,” Yeagle said. “But they’re expensive, and so the state wanted to make it equitable for everybody to be able to get healthy, fresh produce, so they created this (HIP) program.”