New truck helping food need part of joint venture with CARES Act funding

Taking food to those who need it most and providing fresh vegetables are the goals of a joint venture by the local food pantry and farmer’s market using funds allocated from the city’s CARES Act money.

The city allocated a total of $95,000 from its federal CARES Act money for the purchase of a special-order truck with refrigeration and freezer capacity to be used by Talawanda Oxford Pantry and Social Services (TOPSS) and the Uptown Farmers Market. The allocation came in two parts.

First, the City Council voted to grant $42,000 to TOPSS from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to purchase a used truck. When a third allocation came to the city, the pantry organization requested an additional $53,000 to purchase a new truck made to their specifications.

The farmers market, meanwhile, had requested $50,000 to buy a refrigerated van to expand its e-commerce efforts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables from its vendors to the market site as well as deliver them to residents of the area.

“It seemed a pretty similar ask and City Council was not willing to give two things to two organizations in the community,” farmers market manager Ross Olson said. “We want to be sure everyone’s needs are met. The cooperation makes me feel good about what we have done.”

He credited TOPSS Executive Director Ann Fuehrer with suggesting a joint request in which they would share use of the truck and Council members agreed to that arrangement in granting the second allocation.

Representatives of the two agencies are meeting to finalize specifications for the truck.

Fuehrer said the food pantry has been operating on a delivery-only basis during the pandemic but that took away the element of choice on which it was founded. They reopened for curbside shopping Oct. 26, a modified operation in which customers do not enter the building but fill out an order sheet from their cars and their selections are filled by volunteers.

Deliveries have continued, however.

“We are about half and half with deliveries,” TOPSS Storage Room Manager Scott O’Malley said.

The curbside visits are by appointment only and the pantry’s Customer Service Manager Candace Roseman, working from home, takes the reservations and schedules those visits.

While the shoppers are waiting for their orders to be filled, other volunteers bring around a box of the fresh produce they have available and customers can make selections from that, which are then bagged and provided to them.

Fuehrer said she was concerned with the pandemic operation not allowing pantry customers choice. The number of deliveries was wearing on their volunteer force putting the boxes together and delivering them to residences all over the vast service area, the Talawanda School District.

“We cannot continue doing 28 deliveries a day,” she said, but noted they are limiting the number of curbside pickups each service day to accommodate regular pantry users. “We did curbside a bit in March, but looking ahead, realized it could not continue during the pandemic.”

O’Malley said the plan to use the new truck for those deliveries is only part of the plans for TOPSS.

“Having a vehicle, even beyond deliveries, will allow donations to be picked up, so they will not just come to us,” he said, noting the shared use will help not only those who need the services of a food pantry but also residents who want to have more fresh produce available. “The food system proves it can work for everyone. It’s pretty exciting. Everyone eats. This combines local food and TOPSS, two big constituencies.”

As for the farmers market, Olson envisions being able to collect produce and other items from local vendors to have it available at various times instead of only the Saturday and Tuesday market hours. The e-commerce program instituted early this year can then be expanded.

“This year, we decided to start e-commerce with online ordering and curbside pickup. When you are dealing with perishable food, the health department has a whole lot of regulations,” Olson said, adding the truck with refrigeration and a section for freezing food will meet a lot more food safety rules, expanding their offerings. “Buying food from vendors all around the area, gives us flexibility to not just do it on the day of the market. It seemed the best way was to have a refrigerated truck. Because the farmers market is about access to local produce, we see it as a way to extend possible farm to farmers market to the consumer.”

The initial e-commerce arrangement was helped by a $4,500 grant from the Oxford Community Foundation to operate the first year. He said that effort had begun even before the pandemic. Addition of the truck will expand the farmers market’s ability to reach out to more people.

“We know of several community members now who are not willing to come to Market due to concerns about COVID. We are already hearing from members of the community who are concerned about being able to get produce and prepared foods from the market due to fear of spreading COVID in the community,” Olson wrote in his application for CARES Act funding to City Council.

Even after the pandemic, however, both the market and TOPSS will be able to expand their operations with use of the truck. Olson said the pandemic has brought to light policies related to food which hamper many from getting the nourishing food they need.

“We had to go through tragedy and ordeal. Now, we’re getting an opportunity to take part in that,” he said. “Both organizations’ goal is giving people access who are in some way limited.”

Also under consideration is a mobile kitchen, a trailer which can be used to take food preparation lessons to people in the district in conjunction with the truck.

TOPSS is to have primary responsibility for the truck, but the two organizations will work out a schedule equitable for both to maximize its use.

Rules for use of the CARES Act money specify the money must be spent by the end of December or it is to be returned to the federal government but Fuehrer said they can pay for the truck when it is ordered before that deadline. Osborn is optimistic they may be able to take delivery before then, too.

“It is possible by the end of the year, but certainly early in 2021,” Olson said.

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