By DAVID J. HILL
Published September 27, 2023
At first glance, the new mobile produce markets on UB’s North and South campuses appears to be just that: a place to buy fresh produce. But beyond the peaches, cherry tomatoes and red potatoes, there’s much more going on.
Lucia Leone, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions, calls it “a living laboratory.”
And for good reason. The market is an outgrowth of Leone’s Veggie Van Study, a research project based at UB and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that includes the Veggie Van Training Center, which provides technical assistance to organizations around the country looking to start mobile produce markets or evaluate their current programs. The team also conducts research on the effectiveness of mobile produce markets and organizes the annual Mobile Produce Market Summit.
The UB Veggie Van, as the on-campus mobile market is called, is designed to be a “living lab” to test innovations developed through the Veggie Van Study, while giving students the opportunity to learn through a related food entrepreneurship course.
It’s also helping to address at UB the issue of food insecurity — a major issue that affects students on college campuses across the country — by providing the campus community with regular access to fresh, healthy foods at an affordable price.
Leone and a team of staff and students began piloting the UB Veggie Van on campus last month. The market will run through the spring semester, and organizers hope to eventually grow it to other locations in the community, including UB’s Downtown Campus, provided they can get funding for a vehicle.
For now, the UB Veggie Van operates a mobile market from 2-4 p.m. every Wednesday on the North Campus between the Student Union and Clemens Hall and 2-4 p.m. every Thursday on the South Campus in front of Diefendorf Hall. They are looking to expand to more locations on campus as well as the local community with the support of donors.
The market is available to the entire campus community, but there are incentives designed to make it more affordable for students. For example, students who register with the UB Veggie Van receive 20% off their order each time they shop. Recent offerings at the market included broccolini, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, ginger gold apples and watermelon — all fresh and sourced from local farmers.
To make it easier for students to prepare healthy meals and save money, the market also offers fresh produce bundles, reduced-cost boxes priced at $15 (small) and $22 (large). They’re also available to faculty and staff at full price to help offset the discounted cost for students. Donations are also always welcome at the market.
“The response has been great so far, and we really haven’t done much promotion of it,” says Leone. “It’s really exciting that we have a constant flow of people at both locations, and we’re seeing some of the same faces each week.”
Angelica Tutasi, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, is part of the research team running the UB Veggie Van. With Leone as her mentor, Tutasi is doing her dissertation on the campus market. She’s currently collecting data and interviewing students who have experienced food insecurity.
“We’ve heard from many students that they are so happy to have this option because for many of them it’s hard to get fresh produce,” says Tutasi. “Having a market where they can stop at before or after class, and it’s consistently here, really helps.”
The UB Veggie Van’s aim is twofold: to be a campus destination for fresh, locally grown produce, and a hub of innovation in how to promote nutrition security on college campuses.
In fact, Jean Wactawski-Wende, SUNY Distinguished Professor and dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, believes the project could have an impact far beyond UB’s campuses.
“The work that Dr. Leone and her team are doing with the UB Veggie Van could absolutely serve as a model for how college campuses across the country can address food insecurity,” she says.
Brian Hamluk, vice president for student life and another key supporter of the UB Veggie Van, agrees. He stopped by the North Campus location on a recent Wednesday to check it out and get his score from the veggie meter, a device that provides insight into how much fresh fruits and vegetables a person is eating. The veggie meter shines a light on the person’s finger to detect dermal carotenoid levels, which come from colorful plant pigments found in fruits and vegetables, and produces a score ranging from 0 to 800; the higher the score, the better.
“UB Campus Dining and Shops is doing a lot of great work with food service on campus, including providing healthy choices, but the UB Veggie Van is an exciting new addition that can really have a significant impact by making it easier for students, faculty and staff to access nutritious foods,” says Hamluk.
While the UB Veggie Van aims to improve access to fresh produce, there are several research objectives to the project as well. One is to look at how secure people feel in being able to access healthy, nutritious food. Another is whether the UB Veggie Van changes behaviors.
“For me the more important thing is, are people using it and can we see a correlation with how much people are using it and then their changes in food insecurity and nutrition,” Leone says.
Later on, the UB Veggie Van team will also evaluate marketing and pricing strategies, as well as best practices for outreach, community engagement and adaptations that make the veggie van model more effective for a college campus in the hopes that it can be rolled out across the country.
“For example, is it about the pricing or the types of food we’re selling? Do we need to focus on slightly more prepared foods or smaller sizes? Those are all things that would be helpful to know in terms of what’s going to work on a college campus,” Leone says.
Toward that end, the UB Veggie Van is convening a student advisory board, which Tutasi is leading, that will comprise students who have recently experienced food insecurity.
“It’s critical that we hear from them so we can learn about how students are accessing food and then adapt the UB Veggie Van to meet their needs,” she says.
Massachusetts Avenue Project’s Growing Green Mobile Market is serving as the fiscal sponsor and FreshFix is providing reduced cost produce for the market. SPHHP provided pilot funding to do the initial evaluation.