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“Fruits and Veggies on the Move” in Allentown

December 16, 2013

Fourty percent of students in the Allentown school district are considered overweight and obese by public health standards. To address the challenge, in early 2011 the Allentown Health Bureau decided to create a program to inspire kids to eat healthy. After exploring several potential models, they settled on the New York City Green Cart Initiative, begun in 2008 when New York City created a new type of street vending permit to encourage street vendors to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in designated neighborhoods where there are gaps in access to healthy foods, and the rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases are greatest.

Allentown tweaked the Green Cart model for its needs. First, they decided to distribute fruits and vegetables for free. Second, Allentown’s audience was specifically children involved in summer youth programs at the city’s 21 parks and playgrounds. To finance the program, they combined a small donation from a local physicians’ group with funds received through the Community Development Block Program (CDBG). A city pickup truck was assigned to distribute the fruits and vegetables to the children; the city hired a seasonal staff person to drive it, and recruited local volunteers to ride along to distribute the fruits and vegetables at each park. The city got its produce from licensed local food vendors, and purchased no more produce than it could distribute in a single day – eliminating the need for storage and alleviating freshness concerns.

To brand the program, the city commissioned a local sign company to create large, colorful, magnetic fruit and vegetable decals for the truck. And instead of an expensive loudspeaker system, they purchased a large bell for the truck. The bell associated the truck with another truck children anticipate in the summer – the ice cream truck – but with healthier fare.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski became the program’s champion. Long an advocate for better nutrition and increased physical activity among youth, Pawlowski held a news conference to launch the program, and promoted it in media interviews, meetings and community events, and official city communications.

Limited resources meant the truck couldn’t visit each playground more than once or twice that first summer. But that was enough to get residents’ attention. Soon, the city was receiving requests for the truck’s presence at community events, and kids themselves started asking when the “fruit and veggie truck” was coming back.

In 2012, the city received a $120,000 grant through The U.S. Conference of Mayors and American Beverage Association “Childhood Obesity Prevention Awards Program.” Now the program can continue well into the future, better equipped and able to serve more children. Since receiving the grant, the city has purchased permanent decals for the truck (because magnetic decals sometimes blow off the truck at driving speeds), as well as a loudspeaker system and a large sliding tray that locks in place on the truck bed, to use as a serving station. Most importantly, in 2012 Allentown was able to purchase and distribute nearly three times as much fresh produce as they did the year before receiving the grant, aided by local grocery store chains and produce growers, who have partnered to fill weekly orders for washed and prepared produce for the truck.

Since “Fruits and Veggies on the Move” is seasonal, the city uses the truck for other purposes the rest of the year. But the truck always remains outfitted for the program, decals included – and each time it rolls out it becomes a mobile billboard promoting fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, the beauty of “Fruits and Veggies on the Move” is its scalability. Because nearly every city has a fleet of vehicles, the program is scalable; the average city can likely devote some amount of staff hours to the project as well. (While volunteers can be engaged to distribute the food, it’s important to have city staff drive the truck, for liability purposes.) The primary program costs – truck branding and outfitting, and produce purchase – could be covered by in-kind donations. On the latter, a city can purchase as much or as little produce as the budget allows.

Finally, the importance of the branding aspect of this program should not be overlooked – Allentown program staff feel that branding the truck has been critical to building recognition around the community. The program staff also stress that it’s not enough to set up a table and hope the children will come over. Remember that feeling you got as a child when you heard the ice cream truck? The “Fruits and Veggies on the Move” Program capitalizes on this feeling – with great results.