It looks and sounds like a city bus. That’s because it used to be one. But now, instead of passengers, the Fresh Express bus is packed with good-quality, low-cost fruit and vegetables.
The renovated bus brings fresh produce to mostly low-income neighborhoods where a substantial number of residents have little-to-no access to affordable and healthy food. These areas are what public-health officials call “food deserts.”
According to a map by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are widespread in the metro Phoenix area. Many can be found in the more urbanized parts of Phoenix, particularly in south, downtown, and west Phoenix. Tempe also has quite a few food deserts.
Studies show that the lack of access to fresh and healthy food often leads residents to rely on fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. As a result, they consume unhealthy food and experience a greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related health diseases.
City leaders have long advocated for grocery stores to open in food deserts as a way to address the issue. But achieving this takes time, and retailers often prefer to open their grocery stores in more affluent areas.
The Fresh Express bus is one solution to address food deserts. It was launched in April 2014 by the Discovery Triangle Development Corporation, a nonprofit focused on advocating for improvements and reinvestment in the urban cores of Phoenix and Tempe.
“Fresh Express is meant to provide equal access and opportunity to fresh and healthy produce for everyone,” said Elyse Guidas, executive director of the Fresh Express bus. “Whatever adversity they may face, we believe that everyone should have access to high-quality and fresh produce.”
The bus operates three days a week, with an average of 15 to 20 customers at each stop. It typically makes five stops per day in parts of Phoenix and Tempe. There are plans to add another bus that would travel to south and west Phoenix by the end of this year or early next year.
The fruit and vegetables sold on the bus typically are cheaper than at grocery stores. That’s because Food Express only charges enough to cover the cost of the produce and doesn’t make a profit. Food-stamp recipients can pay using their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards and can have their purchases matched dollar-for-dollar.
“So if you only have $5 on your EBT card, we’ll match that and you’ll have $10 to shop,” Guidas explained. “That has driven our sales up a bit, especially in some of our really in-need communities.”
Food deserts and low-income neighborhoods are the target areas for the Fresh Express bus. The bus also makes stops at other places populated by people who don’t have easy access to affordable and healthy food, such as senior centers and college campuses.
On Wednesday, the Fresh Express bus made a stop at the Tempe Public Library, where Laura Matera was eagerly waiting. Before the bus opened its doors to customers, the 32-year-old said she was only planning to buy cherry tomatoes. She ended up buying a bag full of fruit and vegetables.
“I like shopping here because prices are reasonable, and the produce is good,” she said. “Everything is fresh. I compare it to Sprouts on wheels.”
Another solution to food deserts is community gardens, such as one operated by Cultivate South Phoenix, a coalition of groups working to address health and wellness in south Phoenix. The coalition recently leased 20 acres of land in south Phoenix to establish a community garden they call Spaces of Opportunity.
The land will be used to grow fruit and vegetables. A portion of the produce will be distributed to families in need, daycare centers, and senior centers, among others. Another portion will be sold to local restaurants, markets, and food banks.
Students from nearby schools also will have a chance to grow crops on the land, something that John Wann is excited about. Wann is the farming coordinator for Spaces of Opportunity and a former elementary school principal. He described school cafeterias as “some of the unhealthiest places where people can eat.
“I used to eat with the kids, and I ate what they ate,” he said. “When I quit eating cafeteria food, I lost 20 pounds."
Cindy Gentry, food-systems coordinator for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said about 60 percent of all people in Arizona are either obese or overweight. She said it’s mainly because they have little or no access to healthy food.
The grave consequences of eating unhealthily is what motivates Gentry and other public-health officials to work on finding ways to make healthy food easier to access, especially in food deserts.
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One solution Gentry pointed to is encouraging convenience stores to sell more healthy options, especially fresh produce. Another solution, she said, is providing more nutrition education so that “people know how to make healthy food choices.”
Guidas said the goal of the Fresh Express bus is to reduce the number of food deserts and in doing so “put ourselves out of business.” One way to do that, she said, is for grocery stores to expand to food deserts.
She said she was happy to hear earlier this month about plans to build a Fry’s Food store in a downtown Phoenix area that’s considered a food desert. It’s also one of the first areas where the Fresh Express bus began making stops.
“At the end of the day, if we brought awareness to a particular neighborhood or area that needs access to food, and a larger entity comes in there and does this, that’s great,” Guidas said. “Fresh Express literally moves and gets on the road to the next area.”