Veggie Van about more than fresh produce, builds relationships in community

Monique McCoy, right, Veggie Van manager, greets Aiyana Barnes, 6, before helping her pick out fresh produce for her family on the Hilltop Wednesday. The Veggie Van is an initiative of Local Matters, a mobile grocer and food-education program on wheels.
Monique McCoy, right, Veggie Van manager, greets Aiyana Barnes, 6, before helping her pick out fresh produce for her family on the Hilltop Wednesday. The Veggie Van is an initiative of Local Matters, a mobile grocer and food-education program on wheels.

Aiyana Barnes ran around the bright green and white van in her hot pink raincoat, jumping out from behind one of its open back doors to surprise Maggie Hovermale.

"Ahh," the 6-year-old whisper-screamed at Hovermale, who just laughed.

Columbus officials: Hilltop kids have less 'quality' preschool programs than rest of city

Aiyana was at the Hilltop stop of the Veggie Van — a mobile market that makes four weekly stops around Columbus — Wednesday with her mother, who did not want to be identified, and her grandmother, Barbara Young, 67, who lives on the Hilltop.

The family has been coming for about a year, ever since Aiyana brought information about it home from school. And they love it.

'The Hilltop is suffering': Neighborhood advocates come together for youth

The van's summer hours at Nationwide Children's Hospital's Primary Care Center, 2857 W. Broad St., start Wednesday with stops from 3 to 5 p.m. More information can be found at www.veggievan.local-matters.org.

The year-round, rain-or-shine Veggie Van is a project of Local Matters, a Columbus nonprofit group that works to increase food education, access and advocacy. The organization started the veggie van in 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began, said Michelle Moskowitz Brown, the executive director.

It exists, in part, because grocery stores are leaving or have left areas such as the Hilltop, creating what are called "food deserts" with little access to fresh produce.

Identifying gaps: Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone focuses on building connections within community

The parking lot the van is in now used to be a Big Bear Store supermarket, and then it was a Giant Eagle, said Monique McCoy, the mobile market manager. She remembers shopping there, but now people have to go to Kroger, about a mile and a half west on Broad Street.

"It's food, vegetables and stable goods," Moskowitz Brown said, of the van. "All below retail."

The van also offers meal kits each week, with recipes created by the organization's chef and packaged with instructions, that will feed four people for $10. The employees answer people's questions, educate them on fresh foods and hope to build community through the van's outreach.

'The only family I got': HOPE Resource Center expands resources for those facing addiction

The produce is for everyone, and the van accepts cash, credit, EBT, SNAP and more. It also matches all money spent with SNAP, said Hovermale, who is the food access coordinator, giving it back to people in tokens they can use at the van, at 25 area farmers markets and select local stores.

Monique McCoy, left, Veggie Van manager, gives a high five to Chantantie Miller, right, during a recent stop on the Hilltop. Miller used to travel Downtown to get fresh produce but now can go just around the corner to the Veggie Van when it stops once a week.
Monique McCoy, left, Veggie Van manager, gives a high five to Chantantie Miller, right, during a recent stop on the Hilltop. Miller used to travel Downtown to get fresh produce but now can go just around the corner to the Veggie Van when it stops once a week.

It was raining Wednesday and windy, but when the weather is nicer Hovermale and McCoy set out tables and people pick out their own items to purchase. They get about 15 to 25 customers each day when the weather is better — especially in the summer when people come for the corn, melons and peaches — but McCoy dreams of selling out the van at each stop.

She prides herself on making sure no one leaves the van hungry, and is able to sometimes provide free fruit and vegetables to people if someone else has "paid it forward" and donated more than the cost of their own groceries.

'People know him': Hilltop tae kwon do grandmaster, 80, shows no signs of slowing down

The van on Wednesday was host to a colorful spread of red and green peppers, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, apples, lemons, limes, cucumbers and various greens. The produce comes from local farmers, community gardens and other produce sellers, Moskowitz Brown said.

"We want to make sure you can shop with dignity and have the experience of a farmers' market in your neighborhood," said Courtney West, communications and advocacy manager at Local Matters.

It also builds relationships with the people who shop there, and McCoy is a customer favorite, synonymous with the van.

The group created a mobile app so customers can order online and then pick up at one of its four locations. In addition to the Hilltop, the van stops on Tuesdays on the East Side (at All THAT at 4117 E. Livingston Avenue); Thursdays in Linden (at Linden Park Early Childhood Education Center at 1400 Myrtle Avenue); and on Fridays on the Southeast Side (at Marsh Run Apartments at 2393 Canal Bay Way).

History lesson: Six things you might not know about Columbus' Hilltop neighborhood

"We believe everybody has a right to food," Moskowitz Brown said. "We want people to know that they can trust Local Matters as a nonprofit partner, as a great place to get highly nutritious, delicious food. ... It's a place for community."

Veggie Van manager Monique McCoy, center, helps the family to her left pick out fresh produce during a recent stop on the Hilltop. The year-round, rain-or-shine Veggie Van is a project of Local Matters, a Columbus nonprofit group that works to increase food education, access and advocacy.
Veggie Van manager Monique McCoy, center, helps the family to her left pick out fresh produce during a recent stop on the Hilltop. The year-round, rain-or-shine Veggie Van is a project of Local Matters, a Columbus nonprofit group that works to increase food education, access and advocacy.

When Aiyana approached the van on her recent visit, she gave hugs to Hovermale and McCoy, with the latter holding on to the little girl for a few moments as she happily explained how she got her to like "Cuties," a brand of clementines.

Young, Aiyana's grandmother, said she likes the meal kits the van offers and the prices. She's also learned how to make vegetables taste better through the kits and learned to like them more.

Helping kids grow: Highland Youth Garden has high hopes to expand on Columbus' Hilltop

"I tell everybody I know if they need to save money they can come here," Young said. "It's a good place."

This story is part of the Dispatch's Mobile Newsroom initiative, which has focused on Northland, Driving Park, the Hilltop and now Whitehall. Read our reporters' work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroom, where you also can sign up for The Mobile Newsroom newsletter.

dking@dispatch.com

@DanaeKing

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Veggie Van provides fresh produce in Columbus' 'food deserts'