By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
We were there as Pearl Fontenot took her very first taste of squash and eggplant, tossed with a little onion, tomato and other seasonings. She seemed skeptical when the fork first hit her lips. But after?
“You know,” she declared, “it’s good. Very good. I might even make this for my grandkids. I think they’d like it!”
It’s ratatouille, we told her. All healthy. All low calorie. And made in under 20 minutes.
“I’ve never had ratatouille,” she said. “But I like it enough that I’ll try to make it on my own at home!”
On cue, John Dean of the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative handed her a bag filled with everything she’d need to make it on her own: zucchini, squash, onion, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant…
It was the first official day of business for Central Louisiana’s new Nutrition on Wheels (NOW) food truck, equipped with a full kitchen and developed with grant funds from BCBSLAF’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana and the Rapides Foundation.
Last Wednesday, we were lucky enough to watch a steady stream of Oberlin residents pass by the truck, all curious, all willing, to try the new concoction of veggies. In all, roughly 95 families were served across the two hour event, said Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, which oversees the NOW truck.
Some 140 families in the Oberlin community used to be served weekly by the Food Bank, Wright-Velez said. Then, without warning, their food distribution site (a nearby church) closed its doors to them. Wright-Velez still isn’t sure why. But she knows the blow it delivered to the community.
“It affected a lot of people,” she said. “I can tell you that.”
But a recent partnership with the New Beginnings Assembly of God church has allowed the pantry to distribute in this area again — and even set up shop with their new NOW truck, where Food Bank employees cook food samples using produce grown by area farmers. Ingredients for the sample dishes, including a recipe, is then handed out to anyone willing to take them (along with the Food Bank’s regular distribution of food staples).
The truck is also equipped with a camera over the truck’s cooktop and
a television screen on the truck’s exterior, so patrons can watch the food as it’s prepped and served (though the TV part won’t be functioning for another week or so, Wright-Velez said).
The truck will rotate through eight stops across Central Louisiana — and possibly other appropriate community events. In short, anywhere and anytime there’s an opportunity to introduce folks living in this food desert region of Central LA to fresh, locally grown food. Because the Food Bank, and our Local Foods Initiative partners, are stressing an important point through the new truck. Don’t just eat… Eat healthy. Eat Local. And that’s a big change, especially for those used to grabbing what’s easy, what’s cheapest (i.e., affordable).
“And the only way change works is to take small steps over time,” Wright-Velez said. “The food samples we give out is our way of asking them to take that first step. For some people, yes, this is the first time they are eating an eggplant or zucchini. And we’re saying, hey, try something new. You might like it.”
It’s harder, we know, for lower income folks, particularly.
“Produce is usually the most expensive thing in the market,” she adds. “And when you want to stretch SNAP dollars, you make certain choices. Rice and pasta go farther than vegetables. But this is our attempt to make adding vegetables easier.”
Through the day, only two people declined a taste or to take a veggie bag. But in the end, the NOW truck ran out of samples and ran out of recipe cards. The Food Bank ran out of vegetables.
“But that’s actually a great problem to have,” said Wright-Velez, noting that it means people weren’t turning their noses up to the vegetables (all grown on small farm lands within the region). “For our first time out, we had a pretty good day.”
The NOW truck is expected to serve roughly 600 families monthly (in total, Central LA’s Food Bank assists 28,000 families monthly).
For more information on the NOW truck schedule and food distribution, contact the Food Bank at (318) 445-2773.