Virtua Health to Launch Mobile Grocery Store
Converted bus will bring fresh foods to South Jersey neighborhoods-in-need
starting fall 2020
Virtua Health has announced the latest component of its food access initiatives: the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. This year-round, 40-foot store-on-wheels is the newest addition to Virtua’s portfolio of programs that position food as a form of medicine.
“Virtua Health has championed food access for several years and is a national leader in reimaging how health systems can reduce food insecurity on the local level,” said Virtua Health President and CEO Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE. “The Mobile Grocery Store is the next step in our evolution, and I predict it will change lives in South Jersey.”
In fact, an estimated 15% of Camden County residents and 12% of Burlington County residents don’t know where their next meal will come from, according to Feeding America’s 2020 projected food insecurity data – numbers that reflect a rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, Virtua released a six-minute video that explains the need for the Mobile Grocery Store and gives a sneak preview of the vehicle. (Please note: many scenes predate the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore do not demonstrate current safety precautions.)
Groceries on the Go
When it opens for business in late fall 2020, the Virtua Mobile Grocery Store will offer fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant foods at below-market prices to residents of Camden and Burlington counties – particularly food-desert communities that experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases.
“The role of a health care organization is not only to care for the sick, but to proactively prevent people from becoming sick in the first place,” Pullin said. “We have an obligation to create communities of wellness, and one of the surest ways to achieve that is to help people eat well and improve their access to nutritious foods, so that convenience stores and fast-food restaurants are not the default selection.”
In fact, after Pullin shared his vision for a mobile grocery store with Congressman Donald Norcross and Senator Troy Singleton last year, they immediately worked with the state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit leadership to help acquire a decommissioned NJ Transit bus at no cost.
“This simple idea – of transforming a city bus into a supermarket on wheels – has inspired many generous gifts in support of the project. Our donors are thrilled to be part of something so special,” said Sarah Fawcett-Lee, CRFE, senior vice president and chief philanthropy officer at Virtua Health.
Philanthropy in Action:
Virtua Health has set a $4 million fundraising goal to cover the cost of retrofitting the bus, renovating and outfitting a warehouse, hiring staff, and underwriting the cost of the program for its first five years. Generous philanthropic investors have stepped forward including Virtua Health Foundation Trustee Bob Platzer and his wife Donna (PJW Restaurant Group), the Piperno family (Domenica Foundation), the David A. Tepper Charitable Foundation, Bank of America, and Virtua’s Medical Staff South. John J. Parker, Sr., chair of the Virtua Health Foundation, and his wife Veronica, have also made a generous commitment to help get this project moving. Thanks to them and many other benefactors, gifts in support of the Mobile Grocery Store now total more than $2.3 million. For more information, including ways to support Virtua’s Mobile Grocery Store, visit GiveToVirtua.org.
Be Well, Get Well, Stay Well – And Eat Well, Too
The Mobile Grocery Store is the latest addition to Virtua’s portfolio of food access programs, which Virtua has newly branded as Eat Well. Collectively, the Eat Well initiative furthers Virtua’s mission by supporting nutrition as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle and increasing access to fresh produce and staple non-perishable foods.
Eat Well is now incorporated into the full name of Virtua’s Mobile Farmers Market, which launched in 2017 and quickly established itself as the largest hospital-operated mobile farmers market in the nation. Last year, the market distributed 76,000 pounds of fresh produce. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mobile Farmers Market temporarily converted into a mobile food pantry to better meet the needs of a region in distress. From mid-March to mid-August, the food access team distributed nearly 14,000 bags of free food and supplies.
In September 2018, Virtua opened its first food "farmacy" (originally called food pantry) inside Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly. A second food farmacy followed in January 2019 at the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Camden. Through this program, primary care physicians “prescribe” free healthy foods to patients with diet-related chronic diseases and food insecurity. Registered dietitians staff both the Mobile Farmers Market and the food farmacies, providing nutrition education specific to their diet-related chronic disease as well as recipes and meal preparation advice. A social worker rounds out the food farmacy program by providing social support services to patients.
“To me, what’s most exciting about Virtua’s food access programs is the way they engage and involve children. A child of four years old – or even 14 years old – is establishing eating habits for life,” said April Schetler, assistant vice president of community health engagement at Virtua. “The earlier we can introduce children to fruits and vegetables, the more we prepare them for a lifetime of healthy eating. In doing so, perhaps we can reverse some of the health disparities that lessen the quality of life for their parents and grandparents.”
Health Care on Wheels
Just as the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store is an extension of existing programs to address food insecurity, it is also the latest of several Virtua vehicles that bring vital health services into vulnerable communities. In addition to the Mobile Farmers Market, Virtua also provides pediatric services and mammography on specially converted vans. Collectively, they represent a multi-pronged approach to community-based health.
The Pediatric Mobile Services Program, supported by the Joseph Lacroce Foundation, began operations in May 2018. On board, developmental specialists screen children for delays, dental hygienists offer dental screenings, and lab techs provide lead blood poisoning screenings to children ages 5 and under. Flu vaccines are also provided. The Mobile Mammography Van offers free digital mammograms to qualifying women who have either no health insurance or limited health insurance.
“Mobile services help identify and address health concerns before they fully develop. This is especially needed in communities where economic and transportation limitations create barriers from receiving even the most basic care,” said Debra Moran, vice president of community-based services at Virtua. “The Mobile Grocery Store continues this tradition and truly underscores Virtua’s philosophy of being ‘Here for Good.’”
Statistics on Hunger:
- In 2020, an estimated 54 million people, including 18 million children, struggled with hunger in the United States. (feedingamerica.org)
- 11.1% of households in the U.S. were food-insecure at some time during 2018. (USDA)
- Households with children had a substantially higher rate of food insecurity (13.9%) than those without children (9.9%). (USDA)
- Many households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and rely on local food banks and other hunger-relief organizations for support. (feedingamerica.org)
- An analysis examining trends in food insecurity from 2001 to 2016 found that food insecurity rates for both non-Hispanic black and Hispanic households were at least twice that of non-Hispanic white households. (National Institutes of Health)