Emily Valdez, 5 years old with pigtails and iridescent eyes the size of quarters, doesn’t care for cauliflower. Nor broccoli, or chicken, even. A certain red and pulpy fruit is her favorite.
So when her mom Gilma took her to get groceries, Emily made sure she stocked up on tomatoes.
Now, after this trip, Gilma expects little Emily (pictured) to chomp on all the newly picked fruits and vegetables.
“And we save up money in the process!” Gilma said with excitement. After all, the tomatoes — and the corn, milk, cheese, meat, pasta and cereal — were free.
On Tuesday afternoon, Gilma, Emily and dozens of other mothers and children lined up outside Centro San Jose on Grand Avenue, waiting for their turn aboard the “GROW!” Truck. This “food pantry on wheels,” run by the Connecticut Food Bank, started operating in the city this past June, and will be making its New Haven pit stop every other week till December.
The truck is part of the food bank’s new “GROW Up with Good Nutrition” initiative, funded by a three-year grant of $250,000 per year from Stop & Shop’s Our Family Foundation. The vehicle, outfitted with shelves full of apples and string beans, and refrigerators with beef and poultry, cycles through preschools and daycares in New Haven, Hamden and Bridgeport.
“By providing more than 200 young families with fresh, nutritious foods, our hope is to increase the nutrition content of each participating household’s meals,” said Nancy Carrington, who will retire at the end of this year as president and CEO of the Connecticut Food Bank after 30 years at the agency.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Mayor Toni Harp were among the Connecticut officials speaking and welcoming families at Centro San Jose, each stressing the need to combat food deserts across the state.
But their rhetoric was no match for Mr. Potato Head. He burst out of a door to great fanfare and led the children outside, stopping every other minute for photos.
“High-five!” yelled one boy in frenzy, as he skipped and slapped his hand against Mr. Potato Head’s foamy palm.
Before “shopping” for groceries, though, families must first attend nutrition workshops where they learn about buying and cooking healthy foods on a budget.
Once inside the truck, it was freshness galore. Oranges, potatoes, peanut butter, brown rice, fish — a narrow passageway stocked on either side from floor to ceiling with products.
Each item is rationed out depending on the truck’s daily demand, which usually fluctuates between 10 and 20 families. On Tuesday, as Enriquetta Morales’s son (pictured) helped her tote a large carrier bag, it was two handfuls of banana per family. Eggplants, just three. Apples — as many as one could carry.
“If kids get involved in picking the food, they’re more likely to eat it,” said Huwerl Thornton, the food bank’s mobile distribution coordinator, who was tasked with guiding each parent through the “GROW!” Truck journey.
Once she reached the end of the truck, Morales was asked to weigh her haul, spell her initials and say the number of children in her household. Over 60 pounds, E.M., two: a young boy and a baby daughter in her arms.
As the food bank volunteers helped her move the bags to her car, Morales relished the thought of her kids’ next meal.
“It’s time to eat a little better and a little healthier,” she said, and then hopped into her minivan, with a trunk full of fresh food.