Kamala Liyamage doesn’t go grocery shopping at a store. There aren’t any near her home, and that makes things difficult when she either has to carry all her bags back on her own, use the TTC or pay for a taxi ride.
The 80-year-old’s trip goes from difficult to nearly impossible in the winter.
She lives in Scarborough’s Tuxedo Court area in a building where she has made some new friends over the past two years. She meets them on Wednesday afternoons when they all go to the market. And it only takes one elevator ride to get there since it’s set up in the building lobby. She watches the market come to life from the lobby camera on her TV screen and eagerly waits to go as soon as she finishes being interviewed about it all.
The Mobile Good Food Market makes fresh fruits and vegetables accessible to those living in parts of the city where grocery stores are simply not around or not convenient to get to. The produce is provided by the Ontario Food Terminal and usually beats grocery store prices.
Coordinator Afua Asantewaa said the food truck used to be a small and worn-out vehicle. With the help of the TTC, an old Wheel-Trans bus will now be used as the fully operational food truck after been donated and undergoing a remodelling process.
Asantewaa remembers the old truck breaking down a few times when she was inside.
LGA Architectural Partners and Crew Chief Conversion are responsible for converting the wheel-trans bus into the kind of food truck the market needs. And Asantewaa said they are doing it all free of charge.
“The ultimate goal is to make behaviour modifications: get people to change their habits of eating,” Asantewaa said. “These neighbourhoods, they might have a convenience store (that) does not carry produce. Or if it does carry fresh produce, it’s very expensive. So people end up buying foods that are deemed more unhealthy.
“We are hoping that with the truck now going directly into lobbies of buildings, we will try to change people’s behaviour habits to eat much more healthier than they have been. People have said to me, ‘Since the truck started coming in, I have eaten more fruits and vegetables than I have eaten in my life.’”
Liyamage’s building is subsidized and is home to many senior residents in the area. Two years ago, someone from the Mobile Good Food Market office contacted the building’s office and asked if bringing a fresh produce market to the residents’ doorstep would be helpful to them.
“They came and made a presentation to us,” Liyamage said. “They showed all the pictures of the vegetables and they asked all the tenants of this building, ‘Which vegetable do you like best?’ Afterwards, they did research and then they started coming once a week and selling us vegetables.”
Liyamage describes the Market as both meaningful and convenient.
“We know in our minds, ‘Okay, Wednesday (the market) is coming.’ Then we can go and buy instead of going out,” she said.
“(It’s) meaningful because it is serving … people who use walkers, canes and scooters. They go down and buy. Can they do that outside? No, they send somebody else,” Liyamage said.
She said this is a common issue for senior residents when they don’t have the convenience of a grocery store nearby. If they can’t get help from someone they know, they just have to trust that the person they give their money to will be honest and bring back the groceries they’ve asked for, Liyamage said.
But Liyamage likes those who work at the Market.
“The workers are nice. They are kind-hearted, very kind. And we have two or three volunteers who are volunteering to help them out and it’s a good thing. I hope they will continue,” Liyamage said.
Andrea Klar is a market volunteer. She helps out in her own building at Mornelle Court as a food leader. The Mobile Good Food Project started going there once a week in summer 2012.
“I was walking my dog and saw the big truck, and I went up just to see what was going on and to see what they had,” Klar said. “I purchased a few things and I went back the following week and there were some people from public health, Afua was there.
“It just so happened they needed another volunteer from the community and that’s basically how I got started with them.”
Sometimes Klar carries bags of groceries up to residents’ apartments if they need help and her job involves setting up, taking down the Market and selling and bagging groceries in-between.
Before she was hired for the Mobile Good Food Market project, Asantewaa was a volunteer at Foodshare. She has experience in community involvement, working for priority neighbourhoods in Ottawa and Toronto. She was born in St. Lucia and lived in Ghana between 2006 and 2010 to do research on a book she’s writing before coming back to Canada and starting to work on the project.
“Once you go to an area where you realize how privileged you are, you come back wanting to make a change, because we’re quite privileged in Canada,” Asantewaa said. “I love working out in the community, so I thought I would be good at (working on the Mobile Good Food Market) and I was hired for it.
“Just hearing the impact it’s having, particularly on seniors; … seeing children coming to buy; just to realize that we’re already making an impact on young people, the younger generation: it’s a nice feeling, it’s nice to know.”
Klar said the market prices aren’t even comparable to grocery stores because they’re so cheap.
“When I go to the grocery store, I can get everything else I need apart from fruits and vegetables because I know the market’s going to be there on Wednesday,” she said.
She hopes the project will go on to become even bigger.
“There’s a need for it,” Klar said. “I love it and I think somebody should have thought of it sooner and we need to see what we can do as far as getting funds accessible to us to expand and bring this to further communities in the city.”
Personally, she said, she hates getting groceries and having to take the bus home, especially in the winter. And taking a taxi isn’t a much better option, she said.
“When you get into a cab, as soon as you close the door and he starts moving, whether you’re in a parking lot or not, it’s $4,” Klar said. “That’s not acceptable to a lot of people. And if you’re a senior and you can’t associate with Wheel-Trans and you have to take a taxi, that’s $8 right from the go, not considering the fact of the accumulation of the actual fare.”
Although the TTC donation was a big help to the project, Asantewaa said more markets need to be set up across the city to prevent situations like the one Klar described.
“It takes over $200,000 for the Mobile Market to operate annually. Right now we need over $100,000,” Asantewaa said. “We badly need financial assistance to employ a full-time driver and a market assistant to help us operate effectively. Currently, the driver’s time is shared with other FoodShare programs and getting to the six markets three times a week is a constant challenge.”
The United Way made the Mobile Market one of its initiatives for its 2014 campaign, Asantewaa said.
“The Mobile Market is having an impact on behaviour modification towards healthy eating, particularly in the communities we service, which Public Health already identified as at risk for Type 2 diabetes,” Asantewaa said.
Besides donations from the community, the Mobile Good Food Project needs city approval to truly move forward, Asantewaa said. Because selling food in public is illegal without a licence, Foodshare operates the Market as a pilot project.
“Food Strategy, Untied Way and Foodshare are all hoping the exemption we received from Municipal Licensing to operate the Mobile Market will go a long way to help change the restrictions against selling fresh produce from a food truck on public property,” Asantewaa said. “It would be wonderful for entrepreneurs to replicate this project because we cannot reach all the inner city highrise tower communities across Toronto that lack access to healthy food options.”