Danny Carothers is a superhero to many Bowling Green, Ky. residents, but he spends most of his days disguised as a bus driver. Carothers doesn’t drive just any bus, though, he shuttles around meals on wheels in the green-and-white clad school-bus-turned-grocery-store that joined Bowling Green’s weekday traffic in March 2019.
The bus, donated by Warren County Public Schools, has been transformed into a rolling market called the Mobile Grocery Store, a project of the Housing Authority of Bowling Green (HABG). It carries unique cargo in an effort to relieve the struggles of living in a food desert faced by Bowling Green’s low-income residents. The Mobile Grocery Store is especially utilized by elderly and disabled residents, said Lori Richey, the Elderly and Disabled Service Coordinator for the HABG.
A lack of grocery stores in the area surrounding low-income housing in Bowling Green sparked Richey’s concern. There are limited opportunities for transportation in the low-income, elderly and disabled communities that Richey works with, preventing these communities from accessing affordable, nutritional food.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert “as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” A low-income census tract is determined by the U.S. Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria and a third of residents in the census tract, or a minimum of 500 people, must have low access to a supermarket or grocery store.
Low access to a supermarket or grocery store is “defined as more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas,” according to the USDA.
Convenience stores, fast food restaurants and dollar stores do not qualify as appropriate food retailers based on the nutritional value, or lack thereof, of the food that they sell.
Once the school system donated the bus, the Mobile Grocery Store project started to gain community support. Fundraising plans quickly came to fruition and the HABG was able to refurbish the bus’ interior. The seats were stripped out, an air conditioner was installed, shelving was put along the walls, a refrigerator with a freezer was fit inside the bus and the exterior got a shiny new coat of paint and decals; everything that a mini grocery store inside of an old school bus might need, Richey said. Carothers got on board and worked to earn his bus driving license as the bus underwent its transformation.
Prior to the Mobile Grocery Store, when residents were in a pinch and unable to find transportation to the grocery store, they relied on convenience stores.
“If [residents] had forgotten something at the grocery store, they wanted me just to run them down to the local little Jr. Food Store,” Richey said. “They would end up paying three, four dollars for a gallon of milk when we could get it at Walmart for like 89 cents.”
In trying to explain the need for the Mobile Grocery Bus, Katie Miller, the Special Project Director at the HABG, said she encounters some people who can’t quite wrap their head around the idea of a food desert and will ask her, Why can’t people just take public transportation or carpool? Miller said.
Miller urges people to, “Imagine your 80-year-old grandmother has no family around to help her and she needs groceries. She doesn’t drive, there is public transportation, but it doesn’t stop at her house. So, if she’s on a walker or in a wheelchair, she has to transport herself to the bus stop, get off the bus and she can only buy groceries she can carry herself. If she needed a gallon of milk and she wanted a gallon of water and other groceries, she can’t carry all that. It’s just not feasible.”
Even when elderly people in the community have family in town, Miller explained that she has heard of several instances in which family members are charging their elderly relatives a fee to bring them to and from the grocery store.
Food insecurity is prevalent in low-income communities as a result of limited access to transportation that makes it challenging to obtain affordable groceries. Many refrigerators in these communities are barren, said Sharon Hearld, a resident of the Housing Authority’s public housing. Hearld took note of the empty refrigerators when she used to clean for the Housing Authority, and she has made it a personal goal of hers to see that the struggling communities would be fed.
“I really think that we need it,” said Hearld, regarding the Mobile Grocery Store. “It will help serve the purpose for people to have food to eat.” The Mobile Grocery Store will help alleviate the food stressors of both the homeless and the homebound residents of Bowling Green. Hearld added that projects like this mean a lot to these communities because it literally keeps them alive.
Richey wants to ensure that the food on the bus not only keeps its customers alive, but that the customers can also enjoy what they are purchasing. “We will cater to the people. If we find a way to get it at a decent price and a place to put it on the bus then we will definitely do that,” Richey said.
The bus is coming up on celebrating its two-year anniversary and Carothers and the team at the HABG are working to continuously evolve the program’s reach with the help of community support. They were finally approved to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, which allow individuals who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to pay for food using SNAP benefits, and the Mobile Grocery is always looking for new ways to keep their customers happy and make their lives easier, said Carothers.
“It’s not just a matter of giving [people] a house. Just giving them a house doesn’t help them in the long term, or help their trajectory — help them get to a better way of living and a better way of life,” said Denise Cleveland-Leggett, the Housing and Urban Development Region IV regional administrator. Cleveland-Leggett has worked closely with the HABG in the past and was eager to vocalize her support of the latest project.
“The Bowling Green Housing Authority has done a lot of wonderful things for the betterment of all people that they serve, and [the] Mobile Grocery Store is just the latest,” Cleveland-Leggett said.
Richey says she feels very rewarded at the end of the day. She is grateful that her job allows her to serve the community.
“[At the Bowling Green Towers] I had a little gentleman stop me, and he was like, ‘I’m so grateful for this program, please don’t let it ever stop. Before, I would start early in the morning to walk to Kroger and then do my shopping, and it would take me all day to get back and it would be dark when I got home.’ Just hearing one person be so thankful and grateful for [the Mobile Grocery Store] makes it all worthwhile,” Richey said. “Anything that we can do to make it easier for the people, I’m so glad that we can do it.”