Groceries on the move. It’s a concept that is bringing more than convenience to the people of southern New Jersey.
As the bright blue bus rolls through Burlington and Camden Counties, it is impossible not to take notice. Beyond the vibrant colors and large “Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store” logo, the bus is bringing hope and opportunity. When it comes to a stop, the doors on the converted public transportation bus open, revealing a cornucopia of food. All of it specifically selected to promote healthy eating.
Virtua Health launched the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store in 2020 after nearly two years of development. The program targets food deserts in their community, providing produce, frozen foods, and all kinds of healthy groceries. It is all sold at cost.
“Eat Well Mobile Grocery is a grocery store on wheels,” said Susannah Campbell, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Virtua Willingboro. “They stripped the bus down to the frame and built out sections like you’d see in a brick-and-mortar grocery store. It’s something we can bring to the community for people that can’t get out or don’t have access to healthy food options.”
To make the program a success, Virtua relied on the expertise of its trusted partners. Morrison Healthcare (MHC) provided valuable guidance and assistance in setting up the program, which is run by dietitians. In addition, MHC donated $500,000 to bring the program to life. In all, Virtua’s philanthropic arm raised $4 million to fund the program.
“It says a lot about the community Virtua serves,” said Campbell. “The Eat Well Mobile Grocery program makes me proud to be a part of this organization. I’ve worked at other health systems and truly feel that Virtua is focused on serving the community and finding ways to improve the lives of its patients.”
It’s a unique program that has already had a significant impact on the community.
“As an alternative to a prepared meal delivery program, Eat Well Mobile Grocery delivers the ingredients of a healthy life,” said Frank Baccare, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Virtua Voorhees. “We have created a program that educates our community and puts them on a path to long-term wellness.”
In today’s healthcare environment, health systems are focused more than ever on caring for the populations they serve. Too often underserved communities do not have nutritious food that is critical for establishing long-term healthy habits. That has led health systems around the country to invest in programs that take a holistic view of their community’s health by providing access to healthy food.
In the past, Virtua participated in farmer’s markets to provide fresh produce to communities. Eat Well Mobile Grocery takes that mission a step further by providing a full food offering and bringing it to more locations.
“We found there was a need for more than just fresh produce at a farmer’s market,” said Campbell. “We have underserved communities. It’s our job to make sure everyone in our area has the tools for a healthy life. Nutritious and fresh food is vital to our efforts to care for the community.”
Education is another component. Before the program started, Virtua held a number of workshops to get feedback and educate the community on living a healthy lifestyle. This program is a response to the feedback they received.
The mobile grocery offering gives Virtua another avenue to teach its population about eating well, getting well, and staying well.
The program has been a major success in the first year. There have been many learnings along the way and Virtua has identified a few keys for success that have helped them to reach more people and create a sustainable program.
Eat Well Mobile Grocery was designed with predictability in mind. The truck appears in the same locations each week, allowing residents to plan for the food offering.
“People can count on us,” said Baccare. “It is important for the long-term success of the program that our community knows that Eat Well Mobile Grocery will be at a certain location on a certain day. If they can count on us to be in a particular location each week, there is a higher likelihood they will embrace healthy eating habits.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the program and forced the team to reimagine some aspects to ensure access. Initially, Virtua planned for customers to pick out food items on the bus, like a traditional grocery store experience. To abide by social distancing guidelines, they created two options: customers can preorder groceries online or use the new concierge service.
“Not everyone has internet access,” said Baccare. “As we look to care for our community, we have to take into account varying access to technology and transportation. The concierge service is an important tool that gives more people access to Eat Well Mobile Grocery, even in a pandemic.”
The program has found success by focusing on enabling access and creating a consistent offering that meets the needs of its population.
Creating a program like Eat Well Mobile Grocery can be challenging for a health system. It’s important to have the right partners in place that can help build sustainable processes.
Morrison Healthcare not only committed financially to making the program successful, but it provided guidance that proved critical for the program’s implementation. Working with the Virtua team, MHC helped to shape the program and allow it to coincide with the health system’s existing food and nutrition service operation.
“Morrison Healthcare and Virtua share a common mission,” said Campbell. “We are working together to provide healthy food to our patients and communities.”
MHC has a history of working with its clients to develop population health programs that address the specific needs of a community. In Virginia, MHC worked with UVA health to address pediatric food insecurity. In South Carolina, MHC worked with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System and the local soup kitchen to quadruple the number of meals they provided in 2020. It’s about partnering and finding a customized solution that provides the greatest impact on the hospital and the community.
Do you have the right partner?