‘This means more access’: Buffalo Go Green, Highmark unveil mobile food market

Standing in front of a display of tomatoes, green peppers and onions that had been harvested that morning on Buffalo’s East Side, leaders from an urban farming organization and Western New York’s largest health plan unveiled on Wednesday a new baby blue mobile unit that will provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the city’s underserved populations.

“Look for us in your neighborhood,” said Allison DeHonney, executive director of Buffalo Go Green. “You can’t miss us now.”

Buffalo Go Green has a greenhouse on Glenwood Avenue in Buffalo, in between Jefferson Avenue and Dupont Street, where it grows fresh fruits and vegetables.

Dubbed the Highmark Mobile Market, the unit operated by Buffalo Go Green will support a fruits and vegetables prescription program that provides access to healthy food for tens of thousands of people in Buffalo.

The mobile unit, an initiative that received a $370,000 Blue Fund grant from Highmark Western and Northeastern New York in December 2021, aims to serve the 12% of Buffalo residents considered food insecure by meeting them where they are.

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The unveiling was held a couple blocks from the Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue, the site of a racist mass shooting nearly one year ago that further exposed a generations-old food insecurity crisis on the East Side.

Highmark BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and Buffalo Go Green unveil a mobile food market called a “produce aisle on wheels” on Wedne…

With the Tops closed for two months after the shooting, DeHonney said Buffalo Go Green aggregated with other urban farms and did home deliveries for several months afterward. Aside from a lack of grocery stores in certain Buffalo neighborhoods, DeHonney also mentioned transportation as a major barrier to accessing fresh food – a barrier the new mobile unit aims to take a bite out of.

“We’re grateful because of what this means for the community,” she said. “This means more access. This means that our team is able to reach more neighborhoods and reach more individuals with not only nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables, but education, handouts, flyers, information and connection to how folks can continue to learn about being healthy and understand the correlation between diet and diet-related diseases.”

Addressing food insecurity

Through its Blue Fund, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York said it has invested more than $3.2 million to address food insecurity since 2019. 

Michael Ball, the health plan’s vice president of community affairs, said the Mobile Market should improve access to healthy food while also having a unique educational component, helping to also provide nutrition education, cooking demonstrations and gardening classes. 

The initiative aims to bring affordable, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to corner stores in neighborhoods where many residents have limited transportation and lack easy access to full-service markets.

Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of social determinants of health at Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health, called the Mobile Market “a really good example of innovation that we’re going to pilot test here in Buffalo and see what type of impact we can have,” and then possibly scale across its four-state footprint.

He added that Highmark has launched several initiatives across its footprint related to its “food as health” strategy, noting the connection between access to healthy food and health outcomes.

“Philosophically, we believe that if we can address the food issue in this country, we can curb the rising health care costs,” Abebe said.

Local Highmark competitor, the Amherst-based Independent Health, also has leaned into food security solutions. Last year, it launched Food First, which offers free access to dieticians and delivery of food orders via Walmart+ or Instacart Express, and its foundation also supports Healthy Options at Home, which delivers meal kits directly to families in Buffalo.

Allison DeHonney, executive director of Buffalo Go Green, talks about the organization’s greenhouse on Glenwood Avenue and how it supports the new Mobile Market unveiled Wednesday.

Buffalo Go Green expanding

William “Billy” Stanton has worked at Buffalo Go Green for almost five years, and commented to The News about the growth of the organization under DeHonney.

“She wants people to understand that we have a disparity over here,” said Stanton, who works with the organization’s elevated garden beds. 

And Buffalo Go Green continues to grow.

The organization currently grows fruits and vegetables at its urban farm near the intersection of Dupont Street and Glenwood Avenue, where it has a greenhouse, 33 raised beds and a GroShed. 

In addition, DeHonney said Buffalo Go Green is currently putting up five greenhouses at its new location at Zenner and East Ferry streets. 

“We can’t meet the needs and demands from this space, so we’re expanding,” she said.

In addition to DeHonney, Buffalo Go Green now has four full-time employees, one part-timer and is looking to hire a registered dietician. 

One of the newest employees is Alfred Gary III, the new programming and mobile markets manager who will be driving the mobile unit into neighborhoods and the health clinics the vehicle will visit. 

Gary, who graduated last spring from University at Buffalo with his master’s degree in public health, came from the UB Food Systems Planning and Health Communities Lab and has spent the last year focused on urban agriculture. 

Gary said it’s been fulfilling to be part of Buffalo Go Green’s growing mission, especially as someone who grew up on the East Side and who saw friends and family members develop diet-related chronic illnesses.

“That kind of initiated me jumping into this role,” he said.

Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or jharris@buffnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByJonHarris.

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