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Mobile Grocery Store Helping Fight Hunger In Camden County

CAMDEN COUNTY, NJ — There’s a new food bank in Camden County, and this one’s mobile. On the heels of a report that the coronavirus pandemic is increasing hunger across the country, including in Camden County, Virtua Health announced the launch of its 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, the health system said.

“Virtua Health has championed food access for several years and is a national leader in reimagining how health systems can reduce food insecurity on the local level,” Virtua Health President and CEO Dennis W. Pullin said. “The Mobile Grocery Store is the next step in our evolution, and I predict it will change lives in South Jersey.”

Pullin said he appealed directly to the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and worked with its leadership to 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,” Virtua Senior Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer at Virtua Health Sarah Fawcett-Lee said.

To cover the costs of retrofitting the bus, renovating and outfitting a warehouse, hiring staff, and underwriting the cost of the program for its first five years, Virtua Health has set a fundraising goal of $4 million.

It has already raised $2.3 million thanks to donations from 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, Virtua said.

The bus is slated to open in the late fall and provide 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, according to Virtua.

“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.”

Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, says coronavirus-related economic crises could push the number of food insecure Americans to 54 million by year’s end. That’s 17 million more Americans than who were food insecure before the pandemic.

In Camden County, about 52,430 people were considered food insecure before the pandemic, according to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” interactive study.

By the end of the year, it is expected that food insecurity in Camden County will increase from 10.3 percent to 15.3 percent. Read more here: Coronavirus Increases Hunger: Find A Food Bank In Camden County

The Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store is part of Virtua’s mission to support nutrition as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle and increasing access to fresh produce and staple non-perishable foods.

In 2017, Virtua launched its Mobile Farmers Market. Last year, the market distributed 76,000 pounds of fresh produce. During the height of the coronavirus 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 pharmacy (originally called food pantry) inside Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly. A second food pharmacy 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 pharmacies, 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 pharmacy program by providing social support services to patients.

The mobile grocery store is also Virtua’s third vehicle that brings health services to vulnerable communities. 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.

Below is a six-minute video Virtua released that explains the need for the Mobile Grocery Store and gives a sneak preview of the vehicle. Many of the scenes in the video predate the coronavirus pandemic and therefore do not demonstrate current safety precautions.

For more information, including ways to support Virtua’s Mobile Grocery Store, visit foundation.virtua.org.

Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.

This article originally appeared on the Gloucester Township Patch