A farmer’s market on wheels is hoping to put a dent into the problem of food deserts in Winnipeg’s inner city
Fireweed Food Co-op has launched its new Veggie Van pilot program, which brings subsidized local produce into Winnipeg’s inner city neighbourhoods through a mobile market on Thursday afternoons. The West Central Women’s Resource Centre was the first stop on the Veggie Van’s inaugural tour last week.
"We have zucchini, beets, yellow onion, carrots, sweet corn," says Fireweed’s food hub delivery co-ordinator Janelle Wride, while standing behind a table piled high with colourful vegetables. "Those are most of the basic items that we have available from the producers right now and each week it’ll change a little bit."
The goal of the program, she says, is to combat food insecurity by offering cheap, nutritious produce for sale in underserved communities.
"The local produce is of higher quality because it’s picked and then delivered the same or the next day," Wride says. "And most markets are in neighbourhoods like Wolseley and South Osborne, where more people would be able to afford the farmer’s market price for vegetables."
On Thursday, cherry tomatoes were priced at $1.50 a pint, zucchinis were $0.70 per pound and peppers were $1 a pound. Fireweed is also supporting its farmer co-op members through the program by purchasing veg at full-price and subsidizing the cost by at least 50 per cent for shoppers through monetary donations. Some farmers have also donated produce, which the Veggie Van then offers to community members for free.
Fireweed is testing the concept over four weeks through pop-ups at the West Central, the North Point Douglas Women’s Centre and NorWest Food Co-op — all of which operate in urban food deserts, where grocery options are sparse and household incomes are low. A 2014 study concluded that roughly nine per cent of the Winnipeg Health Region’s population lived more than half-a-kilometre from the nearest full-service grocery store.
Most food deserts occur in inner city neighbourhoods, such as the West End, where income levels, lack of transportation and mobility issues either discourage the opening of grocery stores or limit the ability of residents to venture to established stores.
"We’re working in a neighbourhood that’s just so chronically food insecure," says Megan Carrothers, food security co-ordinator with West Central. "Folks are mostly relying on things like food banks and meal programs, like the ones we have here at the centre."
The Ellice Avenue resource centre serves breakfast and lunch throughout the week, delivers meal kits to 175 families each month and runs cooking and gardening classes throughout the year. The centre has partnered with Fireweed on other food-related projects and Carrothers sees the Veggie Van as another way to empower residents through choice and access.
"When you’re living on social assistance you’re using a lot of your basic needs income to pay rent, for example… the idea of grocery shopping or meal planning kind of goes out the window," she says. "What that means is that you’re not able to actually make choices about the food that you’re putting in your body anymore and what you’re feeding your family. There’s a real lack of dignity in having to live that way."
The future of the Veggie Van program is contingent upon community donations, which can be made at fireweedfoodcoop.ca/the-veggie-van. Fireweed is also running a "Pay it Forward" program, where supporters can purchase $5 tokens to be used by shoppers at each mobile market.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.