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HARVEST ON WHEELS

The Fresh Stop bus – a fruit-and-vegetable market on wheels – is a solution to counter "food deserts" or communities lacking grocery stores that greatly limit access to fresh produce. Its partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank also delivers donated produce to schools, introducing students to a cornerstone of healthy eating.

Fresh Stop, a retrofitted bus that's essentially a mobile fruit-and-vegetable market, makes fresh produce available to those who need it most.

As the executive director of Hebni Nutrition Consultants, a community-based nonprofit organization, Roniece Weaver often observed that her clients' health issues stemmed from poor diets.

Most notably, they lacked fresh fruits and vegetables – not because they didn't like to eat them, but because they couldn't find a place to buy them.

It's a scenario that's difficult to fathom, but shockingly common: In Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, according to Weaver, there are nearly 30 "food deserts" – nutritional wastelands within communities void of grocery stories that make it virtually impossible for residents to buy fresh produce.

Determined to address this problem, Weaver came up with a plan: Create a "mobile" fruit and vegetable market that'd deliver produce to wherever it is needed. With funding from AdventHealth and a retrofitted bus donated from Lynx, Weaver's brainstorm became reality.

Last December, "Fresh Stop" – essentially, a refrigerated produce stand on wheels – made its debut. Five days per week, the Fresh Stop bus embarks on a route visiting three or four neighborhoods daily. The service sells produce at discounted prices, provides nutritional education and even offers cooking tips.

"There's one thing I've learned as a community advocate," Weaver says, "People won't come to you. You have to go to them and educate them."

She adds: "We now have senior citizens who know the date and time when we're coming in. Sometimes, there are 15 to 20 people lined up waiting for us."

In Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, there are nearly 30 "food deserts" – nutritional wastelands within communities void of grocery stories that make it virtually impossible for residents to buy fresh produce.

Fresh Stop also has partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank to promote healthier eating among school children.

Weaver learned that Second Harvest, which receives donated produce from farmers, often is left with a surplus. Rather than let it go to waste, Fresh Stop gathers the harvest and delivers it to a school. In March, Fresh Stop donated 4,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables – including cabbage, cantaloupes, bell peppers and Yukon gold potatoes – to students, who also attended a nutrition workshop and received recipes. Says Weaver: "They each walked away with 10 pounds of produce."

Few people, if any, can describe the impact of such community outreach better than Jamar Allen.

The Fresh Stop's sales clerk and "master smoothie maker" has become the face of the program, preaching the benefits of good nutrition to residents at every neighborhood stop. Weaver recruited Allen for the role after the two met in one of her nutrition classes, and she watched him transform his life through healthy eating. Since 2013, Allen has switched to a vegan diet and has dropped nearly 30 pounds.

Now, he's making converts out of skeptics. Children who initially greeted him suspiciously – asking "Where's the real food?" – clamor for his smoothie concoctions. A favorite? His "greensicle,” which Allen promotes as the "drink of ninja turtles." It's made with spinach, pineapples, mangoes, bananas and orange juice.

"They wouldn't touch spinach, but I love teaching them how good healthy food can taste," Allen says. He has plenty of older fans, too.

"We help many elders in the community," he says. "They're using walkers, and they'll thank me and tell me how grateful they are that we stopped by. We're their only option."

For Weaver, however, Fresh Stop is much more than an immediate fix. It's an investment in long-term health, especially considering that many ailments – including diabetes, heart disease and obesity, especially among children – are diet-related.

"We're raising a generation that may not out live mine," Weaver says. "If we don't do something to move the needle, who will?"

For additional information regarding the Fresh Stop Bus visit thefreshstopbus.com or call Call407-872-1333.

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