- December 17, 2015
Weeknights are busy for working families, and without fresh food in the fridge sometimes fast food is the easier option. But imagine what you could whip up for a meal if the fresh food was waiting just outside your door.
The Fresh Stop Mobile Market is giving Hannibal Square in Winter Park that fresh opportunity. A gigantic repurposed LYNX bus with paintings of produce on its exterior doubles as a farmers market, and as customers walk up the steps and grab a shopping basket they enter a cool, colorful wonderland filled with long shelves of seasonal and affordable fruits and veggies.
“The Fresh Stop Bus is like the ice cream truck coming to your neighborhood,” said Jill Hamilton Buss, the executive director of Healthy Central Florida, the foundation that brought The Fresh Stop to Winter Park and Eatonville through a grant. “It’s no plain yellow school bus. Children want to come visit it, and making it exciting makes eating healthy easier, which is why we brought it here.”
The Fresh Stop Bus comes to Hannibal Square the first Tuesday of the month from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., so workers on lunch breaks can grab a healthy option on the go. On the first Thursday of each month the bus is open during the evening commute from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., so families can pick up all the fresh produce they need to serve a healthy, home-cooked dinner.
“We choose to service this area because while there’s a Publix not far from here, lots of residents are still not able to make it there,” Hamilton Buss said. “Lots of seniors reside in the neighborhoods surrounding the area, and it’s especially helpful in the summer months, when children spend long hours at the Winter Park Community Center located next door.”
Hannibal Square isn’t the bus’s only stop; it also serves 16 other Central Florida neighborhoods to give locals easy access to healthy foods for their dinner tables.
"Food deserts are the Fresh Stop’s main target," Hamilton Buss said. “In Eatonville, another area we help out, there’s not one store that sells any kind of produce. Families have to rely on what’s at the gas station for meals.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 90,000 individuals in Central Florida live in food deserts – defined as geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options are limited due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travel distance. This leads to poor nutrition as families begin to rely on fast or processed foods.
"Last week I cut up about 50 watermelons for a school we stopped at," said Fresh Stop bus driver Rossi Coleman. "It was a middle school, and these kids had never seen watermelon before. Their eyes widened when we brought it in, they were all so happy to try something new."
The Fresh Stop Bus started rolling five months ago thanks to founders Fabiola Demps Gaines and Roniece Weaver, two nutritionists turned healthy cookbook authors. The pair launched Hebni Nutrition Consultants Inc., a non-profit agency that educates Central Florida areas at risk for obesity and diabetes, in 1995. After years of teaching, they created the Fresh Stop with the mission of offering fresh seasonal produce to community areas in need, and at budget-friendly prices.
“There’s lots of benefits of us being mobile,” said Jamar Allen, a regular volunteer for the Fresh Stop. “We can go to people who can’t go anywhere, and at any time of the week. We’ve stopped at senior living communities where the residents can’t drive anymore. We’ve gone to neighborhoods where residents didn’t have the gas money to make it to the grocery store that day.”
For Allen, volunteering at the Fresh Stop has become more than just a way to give back to his community – it’s become a way of life.
“My family and I started our health journey a few years back after taking a nutrition class with Fabiola and Roniece,” Allen, who’s family of five all volunteer at The Fresh Stop and at other places around Central Florida, said. “We decided to cut out fast and processed foods completely, and I dropped 20 pounds in the first month of my new vegan lifestyle. Now everyone teases me for when it’s time to take a lunch break and I don’t leave, I just grab some stuff off the bus and make myself a smoothie in the back.”
The Saturday farmers market feel on a Tuesday draws locals to The Fresh Stop bus, but what keeps them coming back is the sense of community, created by the staff’s efforts to help everyone they meet lead a healthier life.
“Our market isn’t going to change eating habits overnight, but it’s certainly an important piece of the puzzle,” said Hamilton Buss. “Our goal is for the healthy choice to not only be the easy choice, but the more appealing one too.”