On a sweltering Friday afternoon, Tacoma Farmers Market Executive Director Anika Moran is stuffing paper sacks with shiitake mushrooms while wearing a pickled-vegetable printed mask.
Moran and two colleagues, Chloe Aseron and Zach Bernard, work in rhythm to assemble and distribute bags of produce and protein out of the back of a box truck. A line of cars curves around the parking lot at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, waiting to pick up a package.
In June, the Tacoma Farmers Market received $200,000 from the CARES Act. This provided the fuel for a project that had been on the back burner: providing fresh, healthy food for low-income families—for free.
The Fresh Express Mobile Market currently operates at three locations every week. On Thursdays, the team is set up at the Ashford Fire Station from 1-2 p.m. On Fridays, the truck first stops at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center on South Tacoma Way from 12-2, then heads over to the Bay Terrace Apartments in Hilltop from 2:30-3:30.
Each bag, valued at about $26, is packed with fruits, vegetables, and protein from Pierce County Farms. Last Friday, the bundles included mushrooms, golden cherry tomatoes, blueberries, lettuce, kale, zucchini, carrots, beets, onions, string beans, and eggs. They’re pretty flexible though; if you’re not a mushroom fan, you can probably get extra tomatoes instead. On this day, one picky eater walked away with only a carton of blueberries, and was still thrilled.
Moran estimates that they hand out around 500 bags per week. Each package will feed a household of 2-3 people. If you have more people, you are eligible for more food. Moran’s team wants to get food to everyone who needs it. They understand that health concerns might keep people from coming to get food, so they are exceedingly adaptable.
On this Friday, one woman drove by and picked up food for multiple families. She comes by weekly, and brings the produce to her extended family. She joked how her new role as delivery driver has become a welcome new routine during the pandemic.
In order to pick up a bag at a Fresh Express location, all you need to do is self-identify as low income. That’s it. No proof necessary. Here’s the chart to see wether you qualify:
Tell the team how many people are in your household, and they will set you up with the appropriate amount of food. They are serious about getting the word out about this program, and being available to everyone. If people walk by and inquire about the operation, Moran tells them all about it and either gives them food on the spot, or encourages them to come back with a car.
A few times that day Moran chased people down the street to ensure that they knew the correct times and days that they could pick up food. They have plenty of fresh, delicious produce, and they want it to go. Any food that is not given away is donated to nearby food banks.
The Fresh Express has been on Moran’s mind for a while. EBT and SNAP benefits have been accepted and matched at the regular markets for quite some time, but the locations are not accessible for everyone.
The Fresh Express hit the road at the end of May. The truck set up camp in different neighborhoods, and followed the same procedure as the markets, by accepting EBT and SNAP. Once the money from the CARES Act was received however, they quickly shifted gears.
There was an increased need because of the pandemic; people are out of work, family living situations changed, and health hazards have created an even larger barrier. The Fresh Express can also provide home deliveries for seniors and people with disabilities or compromised immune systems. Currently, they deliver to 40 homes each week.
This program benefits the farmers as well. Small, sustainable Pierce County farms have lost a lot of business from restaurants this year due to COVID-19 related closures. The CARES Act funding pays farmers for their harvests, and the harvest is even more widely distributed. Win-win.
Moran sees this an opportunity. An opportunity to give business to local farms, get fresh food into the community, and maybe even inspire lifestyle changes.
“There is the potential here to develop communities of local eaters,” Moran said optimistically.
The Fresh Express will end Oct. 30, but Moran wants this program to continue. They are planning to seek out more funding to ensure the mobile market will endure.
“The whole program is an incredible amount of work,” Moran said. “But the end product is so good.”
If you are eligible, you can visit the Mobile Market once a week. To determine whether you qualify for this program, here’s another link to the chart. To determine eligibility for home delivery, call 253-272-7077.
If you’re craving shiitake mushrooms or Sungold tomatoes after reading this, go support the weekly Point Ruston, Eastside and Broadway markets. Open on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday respectively.
These markets also accept EBT, WIC/SFMNP and offer the Fresh Bucks EBT matching. For more information on hours and seasons, visit the Tacoma Farmers Market website.