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Sunday, August 01, 2021

The bus stops here: Fresh Stop bus to bring free fruits and vegetables to Marion County seniors

Marion Senior Services is offering fresh produce to seniors with sponsorship from Florida Blue

Hebni Nutrition Consultants’ Fresh Stop bus will stop in Marion County once a month for at least the remainder of the year. [Graphic by Aubrey Bocalan]
Hebni Nutrition Consultants’ Fresh Stop bus will stop in Marion County once a month for at least the remainder of the year. [Graphic by Aubrey Bocalan]

When the story of an elderly man crossing six lanes of busy traffic on his motorized scooter reached Glenda Thomas, she was alarmed.

It wasn’t so much the event that caught Thomas’s attention; it was the reason behind it. The man had braved the bustling roads to purchase a $1 hamburger from a nearby restaurant, only for the lettuce and tomato that came with it. 

He said he hadn’t had the produce in years.

Thomas, the outreach manager for Marion Senior Services, said the story alerted her to a much bigger problem: a staggering lack of access to fresh produce for senior citizens. That’s when she and her colleagues decided something had to be done.

Partnering with Florida Blue and Hebni Nutrition Consultants, Marion Senior Services, a nonprofit service organization supporting Marion County’s elderly population, facilitated a distribution program of free fruits and vegetables to seniors across Marion County. The Fresh Stop bus, a repurposed Lynx bus with refrigerated racks housing fresh fruits and vegetables, visits different cities across the county for easy access to produce, an otherwise difficult commodity to come by in certain areas. 

The idea was created from an already existing partnership between Florida Blue and Marion Senior Services. The Florida Blue community event managers across the state, who continuously seek out grassroots projects to support community health, partnered with Marion Senior Services to connect with Florida Blue clients in the area. 

Aware of the produce problem in Marion County, the two organizations began brainstorming possible solutions, something both economically and physically accessible to provide their clients with proper nutritional options. 

“Our agency has for some time been looking for ways to implement this type of a program, recognizing the need for seniors to have proper nutrition,” Thomas said. 

Kathryn Fleming, a community events manager at Florida Blue Medicare, suggested enlisting the help of Hebni Nutrition Consultants, an Orlando-based nonprofit organization that offers nutrition strategies to populations at risk for diet-related diseases. The plan was for Hebni’s Fresh Stop bus to stop at certain target areas in Marion County, benefiting both clients of Marion Senior Services and Florida Blue.

While visiting the bus, clients can pick up a bag of fresh food and ingredients, consult with an on-site nutritionist and receive information about Florida Blue’s various insurance programs. Dell Richards, another Florida Blue Medicare community events manager, said the program has serviced over 500 clients per month since its inception in January.

With sponsorship from Florida Blue, the Fresh Stop bus has visited two communities in Marion County per month, including Anthony and Marion Oaks, and the bus is set to stop in Dunnellon in the next week.

These areas fall under the category of “food deserts” — regions without easy access to fresh foods, according to Hebni’s website. The website states in Central Florida alone, more than 90,000 people live in a food desert, and the situation is even more severe for seniors.

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Lack of funds and limited transportation put the elderly population at a major disadvantage in the search for fruits and vegetables, Thomas said. With minimal income and limited ways of getting to the grocery store, some senior residents will go months — or even years, in the case of residents like the cross-traffic traveler — without fresh produce.  

Thomas said this disparity was what inspired the program, which seeks not only to offer nutritional equity but also the opportunity to savor the flavor of good, healthy food.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy having a fresh piece of fruit,” Thomas said.

Resident response, Thomas said, has been overwhelmingly positive. She said the community has been very supportive of the program and hopes for it to continue.

“Clients have just been overjoyed about this,” Thomas said. “Obviously, they’re hoping we can keep it going.”

Florida Blue’s contract with Hebni extends through the year, but Richards said it’s likely they’ll renew to continue and even expand the program. The Fresh Stop bus also visits areas in Orange County, and Richards said Florida Blue is looking to implement the program in other regions where community event managers operate.

“I don’t see it going away,” she said. “I see it growing if anything.”

Contact Heather Bushman at hbushman@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @hgrizzl.

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