Written by The Business Journal Staff
A new public health initiative aimed at combatting food deserts in Southeast Fresno is hoping to counter the community’s existing food culture of unhealthy snacks by arming an elite unit of mobile street vendors with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Cultiva La Salud’s “Vendors for Health” mobile food program has been in the works for more than a year, working with national, state and local partners to help address the region’s food disparity. The group is now ramping up for a spring launch of its health initiative focusing on the microbusiness model of bicycle food carts.
Formerly known as the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, Cultiva is part of the Bay Area-based Public Health Initiative. The Fresno agency focuses on creating health equity within the San Joaquin Valley and was recently recognized by the California Department of Public Health for the street vendor program.
“Fresno County, specifically southeast Fresno, has poor nutrition and inactive lifestyles,” said Genoveva Islas, program director with Cultiva La Salud. “We are engineering an unhealthy environment because the only affordable food in those communities is unhealthy. And that same cheap, affordable food is in turn, making our population sick.”
Cultiva has previously addressed the problem through small makeovers at local markets leading to more prominent displays of fruits and other healthy food items. However, Islas said the group wanted to try something more ambitious after being awarded nearly $3 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health initiative (REACH).
REACH funding is meant to address health issues affecting minority populations, prompting Cultiva to narrow its focus to the predominately Latino communities in Southeast Fresno and Orange Cove. Fresno will serve as the pilot site for Vendors for Health, before the agency expands to Orange Cove.
“Food vendors are ubiquitous with Latino communities. They’re small businesses and we want to support them, but they are actually part of the problem of promoting unhealthy lifestyles,” Islas said. “They sell sugary ice creams and drinks. Even the corn vendors, who you’d think would be OK since they sell a vegetable, are also part of the problem because they put all those toppings on.”
The group began meeting with bicycle-cart vendors last spring to discuss adding more healthy alternatives to their menus. She said the initial talks revealed some disturbing information, however, and led Cultiva to expand its program to include an emphasis on the health and well being of the vendors themselves.
“They told us they would love to sell produce but they are not allowed. The city doesn’t allow them to sell fresh cut fruits or vegetables unless prepared in a commercial kitchen, which they don’t have access to,” she said. “If they are caught, they are fined. If they can’t pay the fine, their carts can be repossessed, even dismantled and sold for parts. What other business has to face that kind of threat to its livelihood?”
To combat those hurdles, Cultiva is partnering with Food Commons Fresno to allow mobile vendors access to its planned community kitchen on Belmont Avenue. The 2,000-square-foot facility is still in the process of opening, but will eventually serve as a central hub where vendors can purchase and prepare locally grown produce.
“There’s a natural synergy to us being the commissary,” said Kiel Schmidt, wholesale and development manager with Food Commons Fresno. “It’s really good for us because we would already have vendors who can be our wholesale customers.”
Food Commons Fresno itself is a pilot program. The group has ties to the Bay Area and aims to promote a sustainable, fair and publicly accountable regional food system. Key components include farm-to-family local produce boxes, community food hub and an eventual retail market financially backed by the local community.
When the community kitchen opens later this year, Schmidt said it would be the first of its kind in the community and serve as both a practical and educational resource for local residents.
“This kind of resource is a key economic development tool that we hope to use in our mission of transforming the local food scene,” he said. “A lot of food hubs have this [kitchen] and it’s great for any community.”
A $42,000 grant from California Freshworks will help pay for Cultiva’s vendor training and use of the kitchen, providing the program with the certification required by the city to begin selling fresh-cut and whole produce throughout Southeast Fresno’s low-income communities.
To help complete the business model transformation, vendors will also be outfitted with new bicycle carts courtesy of national marketing group FNV. The public service campaign launched in Fresno last summer with the goal of making fruits and vegetables more attractive to consumers and currently has billboards throughout the city promoting produce consumption.
Islas said the group has agreed to donate four new bicycle carts to Vendors for Health. Two will be refrigerated, allowing vendors to sell fresh cut produce, snacks and juices, while the other two will feature options for whole produce. Each cart costs around $5,000.
“They’ll be branded FNV carts so [vendors] can only sell approved products out of them. We’ll have formal agreements in place, but the product itself is theirs. They’re not our employees. Any profit they make is theirs,” she said.
That emphasis on healthy options will also fit well with Fresno’s new development code, which used input from Cultiva and the city’s bicycle vendors to update its mobile vendor rules.
Previously, Islas said vendors were only allowed to stay in one place for less than 10 minutes or face fines. They were also prohibited from setting up near schools or residential units.
The updated code was adopted in December, and allows for the city’s mobile food vendors to remain in place for several hours depending on the type of neighborhood. Those selling fresh fruits and vegetables are also allowed to come within 100 feet of schools.
“Even though this is a fledgling program, it’s on the cusp and we’re already seeing some good results through our work with the vendors,” Islas said. “Those changes to the city’s code will have a serious impact and create more opportunities for the community.”
While the FNV food carts aren’t expected to hit the streets of Southeast Fresno until March, Cultiva is already looking to implement several in-service portions of the program.
Islas said the group would soon begin meeting with vendors monthly, informing them about local food and nutrition resources, establishing bicycle safety courses in conjunction with the Fresno Police Department and reviewing street safety.
By working with the existing culture, she said Cultiva is hopeful the healthy changes will take root and produce a real transformation within the target communities.
“Poverty is a huge determinant in unhealthy lifestyles and this program really hits the triple-aim of health equity,” she said. “We promoted civic engagement and helped change the development code after hearing the needs of the disenfranchised; our vendors have the opportunity to expand their business and we’re promoting healthy lifestyles.”
Hannah Esqueda | Reporter can be reached at: 490-3466 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org