Lucious lettuce, sweet strawberries, crunchy carrots. For some of Waco’s inhabitants, such fresh produce is readily available at the neighborhood H.E.B. However, for those that live in “food deserts,” these goods are not always so easy to come by.
McLennan County’s Veggie Van was first created in January 2015 by World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI) to bring “affordable and nutritious” food to an area where these items would otherwise be difficult to come by. In January 2016, Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, assistant professor of epidemiology, partnered with Matt Hess, executive director of WHRI, to assess the impact of Van and survey its customers.
“A large proportion of Waco residents live in food deserts, and the Veggie Van focuses on these areas,” Ylitalo said. “We developed the survey together and I obtained a small grant through Baylor’s University Research Committee to fund a small incentive for people who participated in the survey.”
Students in Ylitalo’s epidemiology class have the opportunity to conduct the survey at one of the Veggie Van’s 11 stops during the week. According to a Baylor: Hope Abounds blog post, customers that participate in the survey receive a $5 voucher for their next purchase from the Van.
Ylitalo said that the survey takes approximately 10 minutes to complete and examines such details as the customer’s background, household, eating habits, Van usage and any suggestions for the Van.
Apart from the survey, Hess said that Baylor students have assisted WHRI with the Veggie Van in other ways as well, such as providing research from the School of Social Work in developing the van.
“Their have been many individuals that have informed the development of and helped resource the Veggie Van,” Hess said. “Funding from the Philanthropy Lab has helped us develop a commercial kitchen which will provide value added products and recently has given funds to make some upgrades identified as needs after two years of experience. Of course, there are also hundreds of Baylor Students who volunteer in many different ways.”
While Baylor students have been pursuing the opportunity to assist WHRI, participating in the survey process during class gives students practice with real-world examples of statistics.
“This survey gives some hands-on experience with data collection,” Ylitalo said. “I often tell students that ‘research is messy,’ and what I mean by this is that doing research with people takes a lot of time, energy, planning and it never goes as well as you think it will go because there are always unforeseen challenges.”
Along with students being able to utilize and study firsthand results, Ylitalo believes that the Veggie Van offers students a chance to break out of the “Baylor Bubble” and dive into what the people of Waco have to offer.
“Sometimes students spend a lot of time on Baylor’s campus, and this is an opportunity for them to interact with other Waco residents as well,” Ylitalo said. “I love living in Waco because we have a very diverse community … there are people thriving and there are people with food insecurity, and I hope this project is a way for students to experience our beautiful community.”
Apart from the survey, Hess said that Baylor students have assisted WHRI with the Veggie Van in other ways as well, such as providing research from the School of Social Work in developing the Van.
“Their have been many individuals and entities that have informed the development of and helped resource the Veggie Van,” Hess said. Funding from the Philanthropy Lab has helped us develop a commercial kitchen with will provide value added products and recently has given funds to make some upgrades identified as needs after two years of experience. Of course there are also hundreds of Baylor Students who volunteer in many different ways.”
The Van travels throughout McLennan County on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and its schedule can be found here.