By Samantha Mallon
BOWLING GREEN — A green-and-white clad school bus-turned-grocery store joined Bowling Green’s weekday traffic at the beginning of March, thanks to the work of staff at the Housing Authority of Bowling Green.
The bus, donated by Warren County Public Schools, carries cargo far different from that of most school buses. In an effort to relieve the struggles faced by the city’s low-income residents who live in food deserts, this bus has been refurbished into the Housing Authority’s Mobile Grocery Store, which is especially utilized by elderly and disabled residents, said Lori Richey, the authority’s elderly and disabled service coordinator.
Sharon Hearld, who lives in one of the city’s public housing communities, said when she worked as a cleaner for the housing authority, she would sometimes find empty refrigerators. So the bus will help people who, literally, need such services to keep them alive.
“I really think that we need it,” Hearld said. “It will help serve the purpose for people to have food to eat.”
The mobile store is part of a larger effort to take a more holistic approach to helping people who need housing support.
“It’s not just a matter of giving them 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, Region IV administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who has worked closely with Williams and the housing authority and supports the latest project.
A lack of grocery stores in the area surrounding low-income housing in Bowling Green sparked Richey’s concern. Opportunities are limited for transportation in the low-income, elderly and disabled communities whom Richey serves, preventing these communities from accessing affordable, nutritional food.
A need for a remedy for the food desert in low-income communities led Richey to discuss the problem with Abraham Williams, the executive director of the housing authority, whom she describes as “a man of ideas.”
Their initial idea was to buy a storefront grocery store, but the property they were looking at was not within the budget of the project. The concept of the Mobile Grocery Store stemmed from Williams’ memories of a food truck in his hometown in Alabama.
Once the county school system donated the bus, the project began to gain the public’s backing, with fundraisers to pay for refurbishing the interior. The bus was able to get a new coat of paint and decals, the seats were stripped out, an air conditioner was installed, shelving was put along the walls and a refrigerator with a freezer was installed inside the bus — everything that a mini grocery store inside of an old school bus might need, said Richey.
“We’ve also got in contact with one of the local grocery stores,” said Richey. “They are letting us purchase food at their cost, but we’ve also done some price comparison at other local grocery stores and different organizations and have been able to get the prices down a little lower than what we first had intended.”
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,” said Richey. “They would end up paying three, four dollars for a gallon of milk when we could get it at Walmart for like 89 cents.”
Grocery shopping using public transportation was also inefficient; the process is time consuming, and the amount of groceries someone can carry is limited. It is especially challenging for a small, elderly lady to carry home an adequate amount of groceries on the bus, Richey said.
Prior to the Mobile Grocery Store, Richey worked with Hospitality House to take residents to shop for groceries on the last Friday of every month, but monthly grocery trips were insufficient, said Richey.
Richey said she 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 than we will definitely do that,” said Richey.
In the first two months the bus was in operation, items such as ice cream and cereal were added to the bus’s inventory due to popular demand.
Richey said the numbers of customers has already grown, and she expects the summer to increase demand because children will not be in school. The store plans to add summer items such as bottled juice, ice cream, popsicles, and hot dog and hamburger buns
“I would just like to see more items, if we can find a way to increase what we can provide for the people, if it’s the necessities, even personal products, cleaning products, or things that I know they’re going need for themselves,” said Richey. “I would love us to just be able to do more, keep the cost of the items low, and maybe add different routes just to reach some other people.”
Typical workdays conflict with the bus’s current schedule, so the Mobile Grocery Store currently does not reach the working families that rely on the public transportation to get to and from work. The Housing Authority is considering adding an evening route to the Mobile Grocery Store’s schedule to ensure that working families can access its services.
Richey said 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,’” said Richey. “Just hearing one person be so thankful and grateful for [the Mobile Grocery Store] makes it all worthwhile. Anything that we can do to make it easier for the people, I’m so glad that we can do it.”