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The Veggie Mobile Sets Up Shop

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids may be known for its fitness centers, but it's more than a gym. Actively devoted to promoting a healthy lifestyle for all, the Y has been successful with many community outreach programs. This summer, the Y had their own farmers' market, offering local and fresh produce in the parking lot -- produce that could be purchased by low-income residents using EBT. Also, the Y recently switched their café over to the GW2 cafe, a partnership with Goodwill Industries to offer healthier options for customers and valuable work experience for those enrolled in Goodwill's hospitality services programs.

And now there's something else, and this time, it's mobile. In conjunction with a grant received from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Y is now able to create "healthy living hubs." The veggie mobile is a part of this development.

"The hubs are partnered with four different community organizations and we're providing free programming in their buildings," Program Director Erin Hawkins says. These hubs include the Baxter Community Center, New Hope Baptist Church, SECOM and Roosevelt Park Ministries.

In a previous Rapid Growth interview with Lisa Oliver-King of Our Kitchen Table, we talked about how some of these SW and SE neighborhoods are considered food deserts, or areas where healthy, affordable food is hard to procure.
Existing barriers for residents in obtaining healthy food include cost and transportation. By bringing the healthy food and programming to the community, the Y is eliminating at least one of those barriers. By offering produce at a lower cost and free nutrition and fitness classes, they help to alleviate the other.

Hawkins says the four types of programming they offer are physical activity, nutrition, community gardens and the veggie mobile, while listening to each community to determine what type of programming each is wants.

Julie Sielawa, Executive Director of Community Outreach, explains the usefulness of the veggie mobile beyond simply being a cost-reduced mobile farmers' market. "Each [community center] receives a weekly stop," she says. "In addition to having the produce on the vehicle, we also do food demonstrations. So, for instance, if one of the [products] for the week is kale, we will have a recipe that will show how to correctly cook with kale."

The produce will come from local farmers when applicable, and from local Spartan stores in the winter months.

"We try to stay with anything that's grown locally and fresh," Sielawa says. "So, in the summer, you'll never see bananas on the veggie mobile."

Working with local grocers enables the program to purchase the foods at a discounted price, allowing consumers to eat healthy for reduced rates. The veggie mobile will accept cash, debit cards, bridge cards and Project Fresh coupons.

Additionally, the Y will be working with local corner stores to offer healthier options. While acknowledging that many of these stores make their money on cigarettes and alcohol, Sielawa says they'll be accepting the job of helping these stores find profitable products and to market these products correctly.

When it comes to physical activity, Hawkins says all of the classes will be of the same caliber as classes offered at the YMCA, using instructors with a related educational background or certification. Classes offered, all for free, may include Zumba, yoga, kick boxing, martial arts and youth sports. There are classes for adults as well as children. Nutrition classes will usually be in the form of a cooking class, also offered for both adults and children. Two Peas in a Pod, for instance, is a nutrition class for pre-schoolers. "It's really unique and fun," Hawkins says. "The class involves a nutrition component and a healthy snack, a literacy component with children's books and hands-on activities."

Hawkins recalls a story related to her by a yoga instructor who taught an eight-week course. Toward the end of the semester, one of the students expressed that she led difficult life with anxiety, depression and financial troubles, but found comfort in the program. "That one-hour yoga class was the one hour of her week that she felt like she was on a mountain top staring at the stars," Hawkins says.

"I think we're going out to deliver programs in the hopes that we change lives -- both peoples' knowledge and their behavior, and of course, their physical wellness," Sielawa says. "Often, we don't really know what lasting change will occur and so we have to trust that through building relationships and delivering programs that have real need for the community, we are making a difference and that they're going to engage with us."

Those interested in joining the Y who may not have the funds available for the usual monthly fee can apply for financial aid. Y members enjoy fitness machines and track, swim programming and fitness programming for all ages, including pre-schoolers and seniors. For more information on the YMCA and their community outreach, visit grymca.org.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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