The wheels of the Wilkes Fresh mobile produce market hit the pavement for the first time on June 13, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables purchased from local farmers to six rotating locations in the Wilkesboros.

The colorful Wilkes Fresh cargo van, an initiative of the North Wilkesboro-based Health Foundation Inc., will deliver equally-colorful produce for foundation staff and volunteers to sell on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays in June and July.

The mobile produce market accepts cash and credit cards, plus low income families receive “Market Bucks” vouchers from the Health Foundation, in cooperation with the Wilkes County Health Department, to “purchase” produce at no charge. The vouchers can be redeemed at Wilkes Fresh or the Wilkes Farmers’ Market in North Wilkesboro for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Aside from being closed July 4-5, the mobile produce market route schedule for June and July is:

• Wednesdays, noon to 1 p.m. at the Carolina West Community Commons in Wilkesboro, and 2-3:30 p.m. at 1901 West Park Drive in North Wilkesboro;

• Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lincoln Heights Community Center in Wilkesboro, and 2-3 p.m. at Riverview Heights Apartments in North Wilkesboro; and

• Fridays: 2-3 p.m. at Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro and 4-5 p.m. at 1201 Second Street in North Wilkesboro.

Project Director Jenn Wages of the Health Foundation said the schedule might be adjusted for August through September. “We will assess our current market stops and see if we should continue or find other areas that are in need.”

Wages said funding for the project includes:

• $50,000 from the legislature to the Wilkes Community Partnership for Children for buying and equipping the mobile unit. Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro, former state senator, requested this funding in 2018. Randleman learned of the need while participating in Hunger Coalition meetings;

• $32,000 from the Duke Endowment’s Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas program to the Health Foundation’s Healthy Wilkes Action Team for Gail Cecile’s position as market coordinator, plus other Wilkes Fresh program expenses;

• $10,000 from Health Foundation donors for upgrades to the food hub at 1903 West Park Medical Center. The Wilkes Fresh van is parked there and produce is stored in refrigeration units there. The Health Foundation also provides $7,000 annually for the “Market Bucks” program.

The foundation applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval of use of Electronic Benefits (EBT) cards by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants for purchases at the market.

Cecile said the effort is exciting because it’s serving people who generally don’t buy fresh produce. “It’s great, because now they can come to us, and we can go to them at six different sites.”

Interviewed Wednesday at the Wilkesboro Community Commons, Cecile said the mobile produce market is rooted in the Health Foundation’s participation in “Raising Places,” a 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative that sought means of improving living conditions for children. The initiative identified food insecurity as a root cause of poor health in Wilkes, Wages said.

Wages said that Susan Cogdill, executive director of the Wilkes Community Partnership for Children, was a design team member of “Raising Places” and became its champion. The team, which also included Junior Goforth, Greta Ferguson, Jeremy Parks and Kathy Kelley, tested a mobile food market. Excitement from the community then led to full implementation of the mobile market, said Wages.

“The goal of the effort is to help ensure that all families know where their next meal is coming from, and that it be healthy,” said Wages. “The mobile market strives to resolve both financial constraints and transportation barriers that make this difficult for families.”

She said project partners include the Wilkes Community Partnership for Children, Wilkes Family YMCA, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Town of Wilkesboro, Wilkes County Health Department, N.C. Cooperative Extension of Wilkes County and the Health Foundation. These agencies formed a work group that has met regularly since September 2018.

Workgroup members include Cogdill; Caroline Whitson, executive director of the Wilkes YMCA; Heather Murphy, Health Foundation executive director; Wages; Rachel Minick, director of ministries with children, youth, and families at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church; Jackie Johnson, health educator at the health department, Andrew Carlton, Wilkesboro’s planning and community development director; and Courtney Tevepaugh, extension agent, family and consumer sciences at cooperative extension.

Murphy said Wednesday while at the community commons, “You cannot solve complex problems on your own. It takes everyone working together. We’re super excited to have our volunteers and everyone in the community rallying around this.”

Murphy said a food market she recently visited in Raleigh didn’t have better produce than what was being sold Wednesday at the mobile market in Wilkesboro. “Wilkes County farmers know how to grow pretty produce. The community is abuzz with the beautiful food.”

For more information about Wilkes Fresh, call 336-838-1949 or visit their Facebook page.

Other local markets

The Town of North Wilkesboro’s Wilkes County Farmers’ Market is open at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace along the Central Business District Loop in downtown on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to noon and on Tuesdays from 3:30-5:30 p.m. The market operates from mid-April through September.

The market accepts EBT/SNAP benefits and debit cards, as well as Market Bucks. Vendors pay an annual application fee of $10 to join the Wilkes County Farmers’ Market, as well as a one-time seasonal fee of $50.

The Wilkes Family YMCA’s Community Market is open on Fridays from 4-7 p.m. through September, in this its inaugural season. This market is in the YMCA parking lot off N.C. 268 West in Wilkesboro.

Both of these markets feature local meats, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, sweets, soaps, lotions, lavender products, baked goods, craft items and more.

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