Veggie Van takes on food deserts in Niagara County
By Laura Gallup, Cornell Chronicle
Kevin O’Connor used to walk five miles from his apartment complex in Lockport, New York, to get to the nearest grocery store. But for the last two years, he’s had access to food from a more convenient location: the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Niagara County’s Veggie Van mobile market.
“Every single Wednesday morning I’m out there at 10 o’clock,” O’Connor said. “My diet now consists of much more fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season, much healthier food.”
The Veggie Van, now in its seventh year of operation, stops weekly at O’Connor’s building – just 30 feet from the door – in a part of town with few other options for fresh food. He, like many of the 90 residents in his apartment complex, is retired, lives off Social Security Income and does not drive, and says the Veggie Van has helped him in two ways.
“No. 1, not having to walk all the way over to the Niagara Produce,” O’Connor said about a nearby grocery store. “And No. 2, it saved me a fortune. It’s always at least as competitive as anything I could buy at the store. So it’s definitely cost effective, no question about it.”
The Veggie Van – actually a veggie trailer – hit the road in Niagara County in 2015 when CCE received the five-year grant, “Creating Healthy Schools and Communities,” from the New York State Department of Health. Among the grant’s goals was helping to grow or establish farmers markets in the cities of Niagara Falls and Lackawanna. When the local farmers couldn’t agree on a location for a conventional market, the mobile idea took shape.
“We thought, hey, why don’t we take the fruits or veggies that are grown here in the county and take them right to places,” said Jen Regan, program manager for the Veggie Van. “Instead of having people come to a central location.”
In 2021, the Veggie Van provided more than 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to Niagara County communities. It now runs from June through October, and dedicates four days a week to hauling fresh food to four different towns; Lockport, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Tuscarora. The van’s multiple daily stops include senior housing complexes, a women’s shelter and health clinics. On average, Regan said she sees between 50 and 100 people per day, about 10% of whom are new customers.
When the van started, Regan said, she learned a crucial lesson after she chose spots without consulting the people who lived in those communities – and didn’t see many customers.
“If you’re not working with the community, people are not going to just show up,” Regan said. “You really have to get people’s input or else it’s just not going to work. You have to have sites that are enthused, that want to work with you, that want to tell all of their clients or residents. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken away - work with people, not just for them.”
The Veggie Van’s produce comes from a handful of local farmers – and the customer input has been important for them, too. Some communities within the towns seek specific fruits and vegetables. She has passed along those requests to farmers, who now grow crops such as okra; green tomatoes; and collard, mustard and turnip greens.
Rich Woodbridge, co-owner of McCollum Orchards in Lockport, a Veggie Van supplier, said it’s important to him to help give back to his community – and valuable to have reliable customers.
“They keep coming back, and we’re happy to provide it,” Woodbridge said. “In our region, there are quite a few food deserts, and our farm is located in one. So we try to help any organization that is trying to reach those locations.”
Woodbridge and his wife didn’t grow up farming, but in 2011 took over land that had been in his family since 1827, turning an overgrown set of fields into a thriving 150-member CSA business. Because of this experience, in 2019 CCE tapped Woodbridge to design and run its Beginning Farmer Training Program, which also supplies the Veggie Van with produce.
“There’s a lot that you don't know when you start farming,” Woodbridge said. “My wife and I, we made some mistakes, some of them very costly. And the more farmers we got to know, a lot of them made the exact same mistakes over and over again. This was a chance to create a program that I would have taken and benefited from, just to kind of get everyone to know what to look out for when you're starting a new farm and a new business.”
The beginning farmer program runs the entire growing season, May to October, and allows participants to get hands-on training in everything from seed to sale. Since the program has begun, he said five of its graduates have started their own farms.
When harvest season comes, participants can take as many fruits of their labor home with them as they please, and the rest is sold or donated to the Veggie Van.
As the Veggie Van winds down its season, the crew is looking forward to a new vehicle next year. Ordered in January of this year, the customized truck will come with a built in sink, cooler and storage area.
“It’s just going to make it so much easier to load and go. We could definitely go to more stops, reach more people and increase the routes,” Regan said. “We’re really just trying to find more ways for people to get more good food.”
O’Connor said one of his favorite things about the Veggie Van is his friendship with the employees, with whom he swaps recipes.
“A lot of times I’ll say to Jen something like, ‘OK, I need I need three cups of plums,’” he said. “And she can figure out exactly how many plums is three cups. It’s nice being able to know the person you’re buying your stuff from.”