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Farm to Vehicle: Veggie Van brings affordable staples to those in need

Linda Lee Baird

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Bushels of greens, squash, tomatoes, beans, and peppers are laid out on tables under a tent on Cleveland Avenue—the organic produce clearly labeled as such. I’m munching on fresh peach salsa, and holding a recipe card listing the ingredients I’ll need to make the recipe at home. It feels like an upscale farmers market, but it’s a different take on the concept. This is the Local Matters Veggie Van, a mobile, affordable market that brings fresh food into neighborhoods under-served by traditional grocers. Every week, the Veggie Van makes regular stops in the city’s Linden, Hilltop, and King-Lincoln neighborhoods.

“Our goal is for you to be able to make a complete meal for under $10,” said Monique Williams-McCoy, Local Matters’ Community Food Access Coordinator. To achieve this, the Veggie Van sells staples such as lemons and limes, and shelf-stable items like beans, rice, and olive oil, in addition to seasonal produce. While the “local” part of the organization’s mission is brought in through food farmed from Local Matters Community gardens and relationships with Ohio growers, what matters most to Williams-McCoy is making sure people have healthy food on their shelves. “It’s important for us to be able to get it local, but it’s more important for people to have access,” she said.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

Accessibility goes beyond presence; it’s also about knowledge of how to prepare what’s available. To assist, Williams-McCoy leads cooking demos and hands out samples of prepared foods using the ingredients which are for sale that day. “I’ll have recipe cards. I’ll take them right up here to the market … [and] show them what they need to get,” she said. “We may not have anything fancy like ugly fruit or jackfruit, but we will have those things that … you know how to go about preparing them— where you’re not going to be intimidated.”

First launched in 2009, the Veggie Van didn’t resonate with customers as hoped the first time around. “It was way before its time,” Williams- McCoy explained. But when Kroger’s Northern Lights location closed in early 2018—leaving the Linden area without a major supermarket— staff at Local Matters began thinking about pursuing the idea again. With issues such as food justice, accessibility, and smaller-scale food production garnering attention over the past decade, the timing felt right. Local Matters was selected by the University at Buffalo to participate in a study about the role of mobile food markets on increasing food security and improving fresh food access in communities under-served by grocery stores. The Veggie Van relaunched in July.

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Community support and partnerships became the key to the project’s success this time around. Ijeoma Nnani, Owner and Pharmacist at Trio Pharmacy, said she was committed to the project. “When Kroger closed down, the whole area became … a fresh produce desert. So I thought of what I [could] do to get people to eat fresh,” she said. Nnani heard about the Veggie Van through conversations with people in the community, and she reached out to Local Matters. “They came, we had a meeting, and that was it.” The Veggie Van now sets up shop in front of her business every Tuesday.

Williams-McCoy said the Veggie Van is well-received by patrons. “They love the display of the market because they feel like they’re shopping with dignity, and they love that everything’s fresh, and they love that the prices are very reasonable,” she said.

In addition to accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Local Matters offers Produce Perks, doubling the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables. The community pitches in as well—sometimes people will leave extra money when they make their purchase for others who need it. “People are paying it forward here,” Williams-McCoy said. “I don’t want anyone to walk away from my stand hungry.”

The potential benefits from this project extend far beyond the conclusion of a satisfying, home-cooked meal. Reliable access to healthy foods, as well as the knowledge and skills required to shop for, prepare, and cook healthy meals on a budget, are key aspects of increasing food security and preventing diet-related disease, a point Nnani emphasized. “Even though my profession, my business, is to give people medicine, I tell them that if you eat well, you don’t need my medicine. You may put me out of business—who knows—but I’d rather that you’re well!”

If you ever spot the Veggie Van around town, Williams-McCoy invites you to come by. “You need to stop and get your shopping done, and know that you’re supporting something that’s really needed in the neighborhood.”

Visit local-matters.org/veggie-van for the Veggie Van’s weekly schedule.

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Community

Cedar Point, Kings Island are suing to get you back

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It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Columbus Zoo & Aquarium are allowed to re-open but Cedar Point and Kings Island have been snubbed in Gov. Mike DeWine’s most recent announcement that Ohio’s entertainment venues were allowed to re-open.

After being left out of the party, Cedar Point, Kalahari Resort and Kings Island sued the director of the Ohio Department of Health Thursday, arguing that Dr. Amy Acton doesn’t have the authority to keep the state’s amusement parks and waterparks shut down and in doing so is violating the park’s rights.

The lawsuit was brought by attorney Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law. The county health departments for both parks were also named in the lawsuit.

No word yet from the Ohio Department of Health as to when, or if, either amusement park will be allowed to open in June.

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Arts & Culture

See what’s re-opening: Entertainment venues get June 10 go-ahead

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Who would’ve thought that people would be getting excited about a roller skating rink reopening in 2020?

As far as keeping ourselves entertained, Gov. Mike DeWine blessed the state with wonderful news on Thursday. DeWine announced that certain entertainment facilities would be able to reopen under certain health and safety restrictions starting June 10.

Skate Zone 71 has already reopened as of today, but there’s still a handful of entertainment venues who have had to hold off on letting people back in until next Wednesday.

Those venues include:

  • Aquariums
  • Art galleries
  • Country clubs
  • Ice skating rinks
  • Indoor family entertainment centers
  • Indoor sports facilities
  • Laser tag facilities
  • Movie theaters (indoor)
  • Museums
  • Playgrounds (outdoor)
  • Public recreation centers
  • Roller skating rinks
  • Social clubs
  • Trampoline parks
  • Zoos

Below are a few we know are re-opening next week. Check back for more next week!

  • Otherworld  — The immersive art installation that took Columbus by storm in 2019 is set to return on June 11, according to the venue’s webpage. Otherworld will be operating at a capacity of one visitor per 160 square feet, or around 20 percent of the regular admittance.
  • The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium welcomes back members beginning on June 12, 13, and 14, and all guests starting on June 15. The Zoo will be open daily from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., and all Zoo visits (including for Members) will require a dated, timed ticket to help ensure that social distancing and other precautions are followed appropriately.
  • Skate 71 is gearing up for re-opening, according to its Facebook page. It’s currently selling tickets for Adult Night Skating on June 11. Buy them here.
  • The Chiller is also prepping for re-opening and has been selling passes for various sessions since June 1. You can learn more about grabbing some time at the rink here.
  • Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens will reopen its operations to visitors on Saturday, June 13. The reopening includes all of the Conservatory's interior biomes and outdoor gardens, filled with colorful summer horticulture displays and topiaries. Visitors will also be able to enjoy the annual Bonsai exhibition and the Conservatory’s entire collection of Dale Chihuly glass artwork.
     
    For more information and updates on the Conservatory, please visit fpconservatory.org or follow the Conservatory on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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Community

Updated hours for North Market as first Farmers’ Market of the season opens Saturday

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Get excited Columbus foodies - this Saturday marks the beginning of North Market’s Farmers’ Market season! The Farmers’ Market will tantalize your taste buds every Saturday this summer through October, from 8 a.m. until noon at the North Market outdoor plaza at 59 Spruce Street.

During the coronavirus pandemic, North Market provided customers with fresh pick-up bundles. Now they’ve updated their operating hours to give consumers who want to shop again a chance to pick their own culinary delights.

"The hope is that a gradual reopening will strike a balance between the desire to serve the public and still respect the very real health concerns still shared by merchants, public, and staff," said Rick Harrison Wolfe, North Market's executive director, in a press release Thursday.

The updated hours, which will go into effect this Sat., June 6, are as follows:

  • Monday - Tuesday: closed
  • Wednesday - Friday, Sunday: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Saturday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

All of those in attendance will have to observe the following guidelines as outlined in a press release by North Market:

  • North Market's mask requirement that applies to indoor merchants and guests will also apply to all outdoor vendors and guests.
  • Access to each farmers' market booth will be limited. Markings on ground will indicate this requirement and will show the distance required between people. Only one person/group traveling together may be in each box at a time.
  • Several farms and vendors will offer contact-free shopping and pre-orders. North Market asks that guests pre-order and plan out shopping trips when possible. This helps keep crowds to a minimum and lines moving smoothly.
  • Farms and vendors will provide hand sanitizer for guest use.
  • North Market farms and vendors are committed to helping prevent the spread of illness by washing hands frequently, covering coughs/sneezes, staying home when sick, and avoiding exposure to others who are sick. We ask that all guests follow the same protocols and do not visit North Market or the Farmers' Market if feeling ill.
  • North Market farms and vendors will continue to strictly follow all local public health guidelines, safety protocols, and best practices.

If you’re interested in which merchants will be open on what days, North Market has been dedicated to providing you with that information during the pandemic. You can find the list, which is updated daily, here.

Although there are still limitations on indoor seating, outdoor seating on the porch and the farmers’ market plaza are currently available.

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