Healthy Living Club’s hard working Mobile Food Pantry volunteers.
Healthy Living Club’s hard working Mobile Food Pantry volunteers.

Rising early on a Saturday to load up on healthy eats may not be the ideal way most folks want to spend a weekend morning. But earlier this week, in Lafayette, as a large mobile food pantry truck rolled into the Martin Luther King Recreation Center before the 8 o’clock hour, dozens of families gathered around. They looked on at the zucchinis, squash, artichokes, grapes, packs of Greek yogurt – hopeful to walk away with a bounty of fresh, healthy foods to feed their families. In all, Healthy Living Club workers and volunteers handed out 11,000 pounds of food, serving 210 families – and all in a scant two hours.

Healthy Living Club Coordinator Robyn  Stuart oversees the projects Mobile Food Pantry.
Healthy Living Club Coordinator Robyn Stuart oversees the projects Mobile Food Pantry.

Healthy Living Club Coordinator Robyn Stuart oversees the projects Mobile Food Pantry.

“And we expect even more the next time we go out,” said Robyn Stuart, coordinator for HLC’s Mobile Food Pantry program. “In fact, we expect our numbers to double, because these people will tell other people. But that’s what we want, to spread the word to people in need.”

There’s no charge for the goods. Families just have to express a need, fill out some paperwork, and volunteers work to portion out helpings of vegetables, fruits and other nutritious goods proportionate to each family’s size.

We talked to Robyn shortly after her Saturday shift at the mobile food pantry, where she told us more about this amazing program, made possible by one of our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant winners, the Health Living Club — awarded $1 million to support the work of 24 cooperating organizations in the Lafayette region, all focused on projects creating a healthier community. The Mobile Food Pantry program is one of those projects.

Q: Robyn, what a great turn out! Are you surprised by how many people you served? I mean, it’s not like you’re handing out po’ boys. These are people turning out early on a Saturday for zucchini and squash.

A: Right it is only healthy food we give out. It’s only fresh vegetables, fruits and other nutritious food items. But it’s not like people don’t want this kind of food. They just don’t have the access to the healthy food.

Q: True, because a lot of families in this region live in food deserts. So it can be difficult to get to a store, expensive to travel to a grocery store, expensive to buy the healthier foods. Right? That all comes into play.

A: Right, we’re focusing on areas identified as food deserts, where there aren’t enough grocery stores to serve the folks who live there. And, at the same time, there are a lot of families that struggle financially.

Q: So they are genuinely happy to have you in the community.

A: Yes. I remember this one family, they were just so grateful. They said they had elderly parents at home to take care of, and young kids, and they really needed this kind of help. They just kept saying they had no idea this was possible, that this was going on. We had to tell them it’s a new program and we’ll be here once a month. And they just really appreciated it.

Q: Where does all the food given away come from?

A: It’s all donations, mostly from grocery stores. We work with Second Harvest Food Bank, and they help secure the donations for the pantry.

Q: We often hear that many people who live in food deserts don’t eat vegetables, but it’s more than that. They don’t know how to cook them, either – that’s how little they’ve been exposed to things like squash and zucchini. Are you seeing that, too?

A: Oh yes, we have a lot of folks saying they don’t know how to cook the foods we give them. The older people who come know how. But the younger ones, they don’t. So, there’s this disconnect. There is so much processed, easy foods today that the younger people don’t know where to get healthy foods and they don’t know how to prepare it.

Q: So how can you be sure the people you give the foods to will take it home and consume it?

A: We’re talking about adding a cook to our mobile pantry, to give demonstrations on how to cook the foods we’re handing out and let people taste them, let them see how good it can be! I actually want to get people from within the community to help with it. When you come into a neighborhood, they don’t always want a bunch of strangers telling them how to do things. So, the vision is to get people from the community to work with us and help train their own neighbors.

Q: And the food is here for anyone who shows up?

A: Well, we’re trying to target those in need. We don’t want people who don’t really need this help to come by and take advantage. So we try to focus our efforts by reaching out to churches, Jr. Leagues, Second Harvest. But it’s tough sometimes to reach the neediest among us. You can’t just call them up and say come over when it’s the poorest of the poor who may not even have a phone at all.

Q: And I know this is just one aspect of the Healthy Living Club’s efforts. There’s so much more being done for the Lafayette community in the name of wellness. Tell me about the other projects.

A: Right, we have the Seed to Table program, with community gardens and cooking classes. We have the Acadian Breast Feeding Coalition, working with hospitals and low-income moms. We have park improvements and new walking trails. We even have a Zydeco dance teacher offering dance lessons so we can show alternative ways to get some exercise.

Q: It must feel awfully good to be a part of this movement, bringing about so many healthy changes for the community you live in.

A: It does feel good to me because I enjoy helping people. But I especially enjoy helping people be healthier. Because healthy living — that’s my passion.

The Mobile Food Pantry is available the first Saturday of each month at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center and the third Saturday of each month at theImmaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church (both located in Lafayette). To volunteer or for more information on distribution, contact Second Harvest Food Bank at 215 East Pinhook Road Lafayette, LA 70501,  phone: 337.237.7711.

Robyn Stuart is a research assist for the Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning and the coordinator for Healthy Living Club’s Mobile Food Pantry program.