Producemobile to provide free, fresh produce to Evanston once a month

Ciara McCarthy, Reporter

Starting in December, the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Producemobile will distribute free fruit and vegetables to Evanston residents once a month.

The Producemobile is a decade-old initiative by the Food Depository to create a farmer’s market on wheels, spokesman Jim Conwell said. The program currently serves 50 sites — 30 in Chicago and 20 in Cook County suburbs — and will come to Evanston for the first time Dec. 11 for a visit to the Robert Crown Community Center, 1701 Main St.

The Food Depository is expanding its services to Evanston in collaboration with Interfaith Action of Evanston and the city. The truck will be driven and supplied by Food Depository employees, but the distribution will be coordinated by Interfaith Action board member Paul Traynor and other volunteers.

Conwell said the Food Depository approached city officials about starting a Producemobile site because one in six Evanston residents lack a secure source of food.

“That’s an awfully high number of our neighbors who don’t get enough to eat,” Traynor said of the “pretty surprising figure.”

Producemobiles are targeted toward families, especially those with single parents and elderly people living on fixed incomes. During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Producemobiles distributed 4.6 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, Conwell said. On average, a Producemobile serves between 300 and 450 people at a distribution site.

This initiative marks a new direction for Interfaith Action, whose current programs are primarily focused on feeding and supporting Evanston’s homeless population.

“We help people with less support, so targeting food security seemed like the natural progression,” Traynor said.

Evanston officials have also been involved in bringing the Producemobile to the city. Doug Gaynor, the city’s director of parks, recreation and community services, said the Producemobile will bolster the city’s efforts to increase access to fresh food.

The Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market accepts Illinois LINK cards, which give citizens access to Illinois’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as the food stamps system. Between May and November, LINK card holders purchased between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of fresh produce from the Farmers’ Market, Gaynor said.

Debbie Hillman, founder and chair of the former Evanston Food Council, a citizen group that worked to increase access to healthful food, said the Producemobile is an effective temporary measure for increasing access to fresh produce, but more permanent changes are needed.

“At this point in time the Producemobile is a welcome site in Evanston, but it’s also a sign that we’re not getting anywhere, frankly,” Hillman said, adding that food security in Evanston would improve only if federal policies were changed and various Evanston food groups worked together.

“The ultimate goal of people who work on food security is to eliminate the need for food banks like the Producemobile,” she said.