Five Questions With: Kerri Connolly

Kerri Connolly, food access program manager at Rhode Island Public Health Institute, discusses Food on the Move, a program run by the institute to provide access to fresh produce to vulnerable people, and a recent $25,000 donation from Commonwealth Care Alliance. 

PBN: How many Food on the Move mobile markets are there and how do they work?

CONNOLLY: Food on the Move is a direct-service program of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute. We currently operate three year-round mobile produce markets. Each operates once per week from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. as follows:

  • Tuesday: Charlesgate North Apartments
  • Wednesday: Hillcrest Village Apartments
  • Thursday: St. Elizabeth’s Place

Food on the Move’s mission is to increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables for vulnerable populations by addressing the two main barriers of healthy food access: transportation and cost. Our customers largely live alone (73%), are elderly and/or disabled, and without means of transport to the grocery store. Food on the Move counters this barrier by bringing the produce directly to the housing site. We roll the produce shelves from our refrigerated truck into their community rooms so that our customers can shop right where they live.

- Advertisement -

Our customers are very low income and are at the greatest risk for hunger; nearly all of our customers (88%) have an income less than 235% of the federal poverty level, with most (76%) receiving federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Importantly, despite this assistance, food insecurity is very high within our customer base: almost 50% of customers report that their SNAP benefits do not give them enough food to feed themselves each month, with almost 70% reporting that their benefits run out before the end of the month.

As we can all attest, healthy fresh produce is expensive. At Food on the Move, we provide a 50% SNAP Incentive discount for all customers paying with their SNAP benefits. This discount allows our customers to consistently afford 50% more healthy produce, enabling them to stretch their monthly food budgets further.

PBN: Food on the Move recently received a $25,000 donation from Commonwealth Care Alliance. How will the money be used?

CONNOLLY: Commonwealth Care Alliance’s generous donation will allow us to open a weekly market at a fourth location. This market, hosted at Forand Manor in Central Falls, is a significant step for us, as their executive director, Bridgett Duquette, will be partnering with us to expand the typical resident market to the broader Central Falls community. The market is scheduled to begin this fall. We are so grateful to Commonwealth Care Alliance for their financial support and look forward to our continuing partnership.

PBN: What is the response to the mobile markets, and how much of an impact could they potentially have on public health by making fresh healthy food accessible?

CONNOLLY: The Food on the Move program makes a tremendous difference in the lives of our customers. Every week, residents line up awaiting their turn to shop with us. Our SNAP Incentive discount helps ensure that our customers have access to fresh produce week-in and week-out that they would otherwise be unable to afford on a regular basis.

Food on the Move aims to increase access to healthy, affordable foods to improve chronic disease management and public health outcomes. Food insecurity and chronic disease overwhelmingly burden the population we serve in Rhode Island. Recently, we have undertaken a longitudinal survey of our customers to better understand the impact Food on the Move has on food insecurity, fruit and vegetable consumption, and chronic disease management. To date, of those who responded to our baseline survey, 63% collect disability benefits, 78% are overweight, 90% have at least one chronic disease, and 99% have at least one health condition. Importantly, 44% of our respondents reported having had difficulty – either due to cost or lack of access – buying food needed to follow their doctors’ recommendations for health conditions.

PBN: With cold weather approaching, how important is it to continue to provide access to fresh produce to vulnerable neighborhoods, and do the markets operate during the winter?

CONNOLLY: Historically, markets have operated throughout the winter months, as we set up the markets indoors in the community rooms of the housing sites. Now, as winter approaches in the wake of COVID-19, we will follow public health guidance on indoor gatherings and adjust our markets accordingly. Food on the Move will continue to operate markets as long as it is safe for both our staff and customers, particularly as the majority of our customers are at high risk for the COVID-19 virus under CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.

PBN: Does Food on the Move use locally grown produce?

CONNOLLY: Yes, Food on the Move partners with Southside Community Land Trust to source approximately 30% of our produce from local farmers. A crucial component of healthy food access is the availability of culturally appropriate foods. At Food on the Move, we serve a diverse population, with 49% of customers identifying as Hispanic or Latinx, 19% as Black or African American, 7% as American Indian or Native American.

Our partnership with Southside Community Land Trust enables us to source culturally competent produce to meet the needs of our customers. Cultural competence is a foundational piece of promoting health equity within food systems. Health equity is at the core of all of our work at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute and embedded into the mission of Food on the Move.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN contributing writer.