Converted bus will bring healthy, affordable foods to South Jersey neighborhoods-in-need
Today, Virtua Health revealed the latest component of its food access initiatives: the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. This year-round, 40-foot store-on-wheels is the newest addition to Virtua’s portfolio of programs that position food as a form of medicine.
The only mobile grocery store in the tri-state area, it is one of few nationwide with a mission to improve access to healthy food and reduce food insecurity.
Virtua introduced the colorful vehicle – created from a donated NJ Transit bus – during a socially distant, outdoor event on its Voorhees hospital campus, with N.J. First Lady Tammy Murphy among the guests.
“Virtua Health has championed food access for several years and is a national leader in reimagining how health systems can reduce food insecurity on the local level,” said Virtua Health President and CEO Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE. “The Mobile Grocery Store means that our neighbors in South Jersey, regardless of what ZIP code they call home or whether they own a car, can have access to the healthy and affordable foods they deserve.”
In fact, an estimated 15% of Camden County residents and 12% of Burlington County residents don’t know where their next meal will come from, according to Feeding America’s 2020 projected food insecurity data – numbers that reflect a rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working in tandem with Virtua’s Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market, the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store will begin serving South Jersey residents later this year. Today, guests also toured Virtua’s new Eat Well Distribution Center on its Voorhees hospital campus – where the vehicles will stock up each day.
Speakers at the event included Tammy Murphy, Congressman Donald Norcross, NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett, and Virtua leaders and supporters.
The Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store will offer fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant foods at below-market prices to residents of Camden and Burlington counties – particularly in food-desert communities that experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases.
“The role of a health care organization is not only to care for the sick, but to proactively prevent people from becoming sick in the first place,” Puffin said. “We have an obligation to create communities of wellness, and one of the surest ways to achieve that is to help people eat well – and to provide that service in a meaningful way that is centered on dignity and respect.”
In fact, after Pullin shared his vision for a mobile grocery store with Congressman Norcross and Senator Troy Singleton last year, they immediately worked with the state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit leadership to help acquire a decommissioned NJ Transit bus at no cost.
“This simple idea – of transforming a city bus into a supermarket on wheels – has inspired many generous gifts in support of the project. Our donors are thrilled to be part of something so special,” said Sarah Fawcett-Lee, CFRE, senior vice president and chief philanthropy officer at Virtua Health.
Virtua Health has set a $4 million fundraising goal to cover the cost of retrofitting the bus, renovating and outfitting a warehouse, hiring staff, and underwriting the cost of the program for its first five years. Generous philanthropic investors have stepped forward including Virtua Health Foundation Trustee Bob Platzer and his wife Donna (PJW Restaurant Group), the Piperno family (Domenica Foundation), the David A. Tepper Charitable Foundation, Bank of America, and Virtua’s Medical Staff South. John J. Parker Sr., chair of the Virtua Health Foundation, and his wife Veronica, have also made a generous commitment to help get this project moving. Thanks to them and many other benefactors, gifts in support of the Mobile Grocery Store now total more than $2.4 million. For more information, including ways to support Virtua’s Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store, visit GiveToVirtua.org.
To keep shoppers safe and comfortable during the pandemic, the store will offer three shopping options:
- In-person, with limited people on the bus at any time.
- Shop online and pick-up/pay in person.
- In-person “concierge” shopping, in which an Eat Well colleague will board the store and shop on behalf of the customer.
In addition, both shoppers and staff members will wear masks, and the store has hand-sanitizer stations.
The Mobile Grocery Store is the latest addition to Virtua’s portfolio of food access programs, which Virtua has newly branded as Eat Well. Collectively, the Eat Well initiative furthers Virtua’s mission by supporting nutrition as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle and increasing access to fresh produce and staple non-perishable foods.
Eat Well is now incorporated into the full name of Virtua’s Mobile Farmers Market, which launched in 2017 and quickly established itself as the largest hospital-operated mobile farmers market in the nation. Last year, the market distributed 76,000 pounds of fresh produce. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mobile Farmers Market temporarily converted into a mobile food pantry to better meet the needs of a region in distress. From mid-March to mid-August, the food access team distributed nearly 14,000 bags of free food and supplies.
In September 2018, Virtua opened its first “Food Farmacy” (originally called food pantry) inside Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly. A second Food Farmacy followed in January 2019 at the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Camden. Through this program, primary care physicians “prescribe” free healthy foods to patients with diet-related chronic diseases and food insecurity. Registered dietitians staff both the Mobile Farmers Market and the Food Farmacies, providing nutrition education specific to consumers’ diet-related chronic diseases, as well as recipes and meal preparation advice. A social worker rounds out the Food Farmacy program providing social support services to patients.
“To me, what’s most exciting about Virtua’s food access programs is the way they engage and involve children. A child of four years old – or even 14 years old – is establishing eating habits for life,” said April Schetler, assistant vice president of community health engagement at Virtua. “The earlier we can introduce children to fruits and vegetables, the more we prepare them for a lifetime of healthy eating. In doing so, perhaps we can reverse some of the health disparities that lessen the quality of life for their parents and grandparents.”