- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DETROIT | In a neighborhood served by 26 liquor stores and one grocery, a community group is peddling fresh fruits and vegetables like ice cream.

Five days a week, the Peaches & Greens truck wends its way through the streets as a loudspeaker plays R&B; and puts out the call: “Nutritious, delicious. Brought right to you. We have green and red tomatoes, white and sweet potatoes. We have greens, corn on the cob and cabbage, too.”

The truck set up like a small market brings affordable produce to families on public assistance, homebound seniors and others who can’t reach the well-stocked grocery chains in the suburbs.

Experts call Detroit a food desert: More than half of its residents must travel at least twice as far to reach the nearest grocery store as they do to a fast-food restaurant or convenience store, according to a study by Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group. Many shop at liquor stores and corner markets that carry few, if any, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Others who have studied the city say people in developing countries can more easily get fresh produce.

The lack of fresh food is a public health problem in Detroit, which has one of the nation’s highest obesity rates. Other cities also are struggling with obesity, diabetes and other illnesses tied to diets high in calories and sugar. They’re trying a variety of ways to solve the problem, from adding pushcart vendors who sell fresh fruits and vegetables in New York to a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in parts of Los Angeles. A growing number of farmers markets nationwide are accepting food stamps.

But Detroit’s limited public transportation makes it difficult for those without cars to get to farmers markets or suburban stores, and decades of population decline - from 1.8 million in the 1950s to half that now - have made most neighborhoods in the 138-square-mile city too sparse to support corner produce stands.

“The truck delivery system is one that makes sense in Detroit because of the spread-out situation and the lack of transportation that reaches food venues,” said Dave D. Weatherspoon, an associate professor at Michigan State University. “We thought that was a pretty good place to get started.”

People eat better when it’s easy for them to get healthy foods, said Lilian Cheung, a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended improving the availability of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods in low-income areas lacking grocery stores as part of a broad effort to curb obesity, she noted.

Peaches & Greens has community gardens, where volunteers grow tomatoes and greens and other vegetables to help stock the truck. The food also is offered at a neighborhood produce market, and organizers hope to persuade liquor stores and corner markets to stock their produce.

“People will buy it,” said Lisa Johanon, executive director of the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., which runs Peaches & Greens. “We’ve seen the stereotype that urban communities won’t eat healthy, and we’re seeing that isn’t true.”

The truck brings out residents such as Gween Ensley, 49, who lives with and cares for a 46-year-old woman kept mostly homebound by health problems including frostbitten feet. They listen for the truck’s music, and Miss Ensley said she flags down the driver each time.

“There’s no market close to us,” said Miss Ensley, who would otherwise have to walk more than a mile past vacant lots and abandoned homes to a store and haul back heavy bags of produce. Eastern Market, the city’s main farmers market, is even farther - four miles. “This is the way for the lady I take care of to get fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

The truck started making rounds of the 3-square-mile neighborhood last year and runs from mid-March to mid-December, because residents are reluctant to brave unshoveled sidewalks during snowy Michigan winters. The truck is equipped with a hand-held scanner to ring up purchases from food-assistance recipients, who get funds transferred electronically onto a card used like a debit card.

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