The Fresh Food Van makes regular stops throughout Peoria much like the ice cream trucks of decades past. But unlike the Good Humor truck, there is no need for a bell to alert nearby residents. They know the schedule.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the truck was met with a line of people awaiting its arrival at Sterling Towers, a Peoria Housing Authority high-rise apartment building.
Looking over the cabbage, cauliflower, zucchini and kale, Sterling Towers resident Deloris Mitchell, 56, said, “I love these people. It’s a miracle to have people like them. I’m on a fixed income and this is wonderful.”
Resident Jonah Cox, 75, said, “It’s been a while since I had fresh produce picked hours earlier.”
Stephanie Butler, 53, said, “They don’t just bring us food and leave. They spend time with us. We see them every Wednesday. They are our “Wednesday Ladies.”
The “Wednesday Ladies” are Kim Keenan and Denise Urycki who started the van as outreach into “food deserts,” areas where residents often don’t have cars and grocery stores with fresh produce are not nearby.
The van is part of the not-for-profit foundation Gifts in the Moment. The van is stocked with produce from farms in central Illinois and from home gardens, church gardens and gardens cultivated by organizations.
Keenan and Urycki collaborate with Community Workshop and Training Center on University Street and make a regular stop there Friday mornings. Don Rulis, administrator of vocational services at CWTC, said his clients grow produce, harvest it and do an initial field wash.
“This is learning for our individuals,” he said. “When one of our individuals applies for a job in the future, they can say they have worked in gardens.”
The Fresh Food Van travels a weekly route with additional stops at Harrison Homes, Taft Homes, Peoria County Courthouse Plaza, Maui Jim, Maple Lawn Homes in Eureka and the CougarPlex at Illinois Central College in East Peoria.
The van sells produce, distributes bags of food pre-paid through a Community Supported Agriculture program and provides an added bonus for customers using Food Stamps.
The federal Food Stamp program is now referred to as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. People qualify for SNAP based on income, family size, age and disability. The monthly allocation is loaded on a LINK card used as a credit card.
Keenan and Urycki have an electronic card reader for automatic deductions from a customer’s monthly food stamp allocation.
In July, they started giving an additional $5 for every customer who spends at least $5 in Food Stamp funding. The match is provided by the Wholesome Food Fund, a pass-through fund at Community Foundation of Central Illinois. The Wholesome Food Fund operates entirely through volunteers and all donations are tax-deductible.
Residents of housing authority sites are excited about the fresh food van, said Nicole Livsey, coordinator at PHA. “They need access to fresh food. In the past, programs have been inconsistent, but this program is not going away. This is a big help and an educational process.”
Lack of transportation is a major problem for PHA residents for jobs as well as grocery shopping, Livsey said. Many residents cook today much as they learned to cook growing up. Cooking classes are often well attended because people are anxious to learn new recipes and new methods of cooking.
At Sterling Towers, Rose Clanin, 63, purchased a large green cabbage. After working for 30 years, Clanin has difficulty walking and struggles with diabetes. As she was returning to her apartment, she was excited about frying the cabbage in bacon.
Urycki said Gifts in the Moment Foundation is starting cooking classes at Sterling.
“We’re not selling food and leaving. We are building relationships,” Urycki said. “We are the face behind the food.”
Keenan was frustrated when she recalled a cooking class teaching healthier ways to cook only to see people leave the class and find a huge selection of donated cakes and cookies in the building lobby. Keenan said that will change with a new, enhanced tax deduction for farmers who give produce to a nonprofit. (See August 2016 article “Hunger, Gleaning and Clarence.”)