University at Buffalo public health researchers, concerned about how people of modest means can best access affordable exercise and healthy food, planned for months to bring like-minded scholars from around the country to Western New York next week for a second annual Mobile Market Summit.
Their aim: to further refine the best ways to serve those who can benefit from strategies that can help all Americans make choices that lessen chronic disease and improve health outcomes and longevity rates that rank poorly compared to other leading industrialized countries.
You can probably guess where this is going.
“We’re going virtual,” said Lucia Leone, assistant professor in the UB Department of Community Health and Health Behavior.
Leone heads a team in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions that has become a leader in the mobile food market field. Several funders fuel their research, including the National Cancer Institute, AARP and the Food Lion grocery chain.
The team includes Christina Kasprzak, a doctoral research assistant, Mobile Market Outreach Coordinator Anne Lally and Project Manager Leah Vermont. They organized the conference, to take place online Tuesday and Wednesday, with help from Fresh Truck – About Fresh in Boston, Farm Express in Phoenix, and the Farmer’s Truck in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Mobile food markets are farmers markets on wheels. They usually sell produce at community centers and senior housing campuses in neighborhoods where residents tend to be poor, and their access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy fare limited.
The UB Veggie Van Mobile Market project works with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) Mobile Market and Urban Fruits and Veggies in the region, as well as similar operations on Long Island and in Ohio, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
“Our role is to provide technical assistance for helping them run their markets, help them with community engagement, and do the evaluation and research piece around how the markets are doing,” Leone said.
“A big part of what we study is the impact is on people's diet," she added, "but we also look at how easy or hard it is for organizations to implement these programs. … I don't think they are anywhere near the full capacity of what they could be doing. We’re trying to streamline the process.”
She and her team are disappointed conference participants won’t be able to stick their index fingers into a “Veggie Meter” to measure their levels of carotenoids, compounds which give plants their color. The device calculates the percentage of plant-based foods eaten in recent hours. It was a big hit during last year’s conference, which drew nearly 100 mobile market operators and related researchers to the region.
They are more disappointed that even more participants won’t get to meet Dr. Sean C. Lucan, associate professor of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who will talk about healthy food options on Tuesday, or that the public won’t have access to a talk on Wednesday by Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab in Detroit. She will discuss the relationship between food access and social justice.
Leone and her team find solace in the progress that will be made refining ways that will make the Veggie Van and projects like it more efficient.
They fear the Covid-19 disease outbreak could impact what happens later this spring and in summer in communities that mobile markets serve.
If public restrictions linger, Leone said “operators can't run their markets and they’re not getting fruit and vegetables out to people. Doing data collection also is tied to them getting paid through our study ... and then they can't run their market. There's just so many repercussions.”