As residents of Kentucky and the rest of the nation are advised to stay home as much as possible to avoid the spread of coronavirus, the Bowling Green Housing Authority's "Mobile Grocery" is making that easier, especially for low-income, homebound and elderly residents.
The bus offers food, household items, and a sense of community.
The cheerful white bus painted with pictures of apples, eggs and milk recently rolled to a stop in front of a Warren County mobile home with an American flag.
Nancy Hendricks, 80, is waiting in her driveway with her green cloth bag with the Mobile Grocery logo. Bus driver Danny Carothers fills her shopping list.
“So I’ve got your crackers, your two paper towels, your water and your two percent milk,” said Carothers, as he totals her bill for today: $6.65.
Hendricks has been a regular at the mobile grocery since the Bowling Green Housing Authority launched the project a year ago.
“Well, most of the time I get more than this," said Hendricks. "Always milk, and usually little candies, and sometimes frozen dinners, and sometimes apples, crackers, chili sometimes, and paper towels and T-paper.”
Carothers said Nancy Hendricks does more than shop for her own groceries.
“I have to tell you this story about Miss Nancy," said Carothers. "We also have customers on the other side of town, the west side of Bowling Green, who sometimes don’t have enough money to buy no groceries. And every week Miss Nancy always gives five to six dollars extra to get them bread, bologna, whatever they might need. She does it every week. She’s been doing it for the whole year.”
The mobile grocery makes 25 stops a week in neighborhoods with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Many residents don’t have transportation.
Bowling Green Housing Authority spokeswoman Katie Miller said the mobile grocery has kept running through the coronavirus crisis, with the necessary health precautions.
The driver uses hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes during stops to clean the scanner and iPad used for payments. He wears gloves and serves through the window, instead of having people come onto the bus and browse for items. Shoppers waiting outside the bus are asked to stay six feet apart, in line with "social distancing." The bus is also sanitized after each route.
A regular at another mobile grocery stop is Evelyn Shanks.
"Do you have ketchup?" asked Shanks.
“Yes, ma’am we have ketchup,” Carothers replied.
"I need that and I need a pound of beef," she said.
Shanks sometimes shops at the major grocery stores, but she doesn’t have a car.
“Well, I can take my scooter to Walmart or Kroger’s," she said “It’s a two-battery electric scooter.”
Shanks said she sometimes rides her scooter to Kroger on Scottsville Road. It's one of Bowling Green’s busiest roads, a four-lane thoroughfare lined with retail outlets like Greenwood Mall, big box stores, small shops and restaurants.
“I wait ‘til the light turns green, that’s how I go," she said. "And I just try to be careful and do what I need to do, and that’s all I can do.”
Carothers said the vision for the mobile grocery came from Bowling Green Housing Authority Executive Director Abraham Williams and two local churches.
“The idea was from Abraham Williams and Broadway United and First Christian. Over on the west side of town is what you call a 'food desert.' There’s no grocery stores nowhere," said Carothers. "And like she said, out here there is, but there’s still a good distance to get back and forth," he says, referring to Shanks.
The name of bus was changed to Megan's Mobile Grocery in honor of Megan Davidson, a minister at Broadway United Methodist Church and president of the board of Bowling Green Housing Authority. She was killed in a car accident in July 2019. Davidson helped spearhead the mobile grocery project.
The Mobile Grocery served about 1,000 individuals with a total of more than 4,000 transactions from March to December 2019. During that time period, shoppers bought about 2,400 bananas, the most popular item.
Shoppers also bought nearly 1,000 loaves of bread, more than 500 half-gallon jugs of milk, and 635 dozen eggs.
A lot more fresh produce is on the way.
“During the summer months, we have a garden at the Housing Authority of Bowling Green and they grow a lot of vegetables and we stock the bus with ‘em, ” said Carothers.
Those vegetables help transform Bowling Green’s 'food deserts' into communities where residents can buy local, fresh produce from a rolling grocery store that stops right in their neighborhood.
The Mobile Grocery, along with other Bowling Green Housing Authority programs, got positive reviews from a group of visitors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in February.
The group was led by Deputy Regional Administrator for Region 4 Michael Browder. The region covers eight southeastern states, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Browder said he was also in Bowling Green when the mobile grocery was first dedicated.
"I think it's a wonderful idea by Executive Director Abraham Williams," said Browder.
He said the mobile grocery helps improve the quality of life for people who live in 'food deserts' by bringing basic items to their neighborhoods.
Browder said many in those communities don't have transportation and often have to travel to the grocery store on a bus. He said there was an examination done of how long it takes to get from a Bowling Green Housing Authority communmity to Walmart and back. It took three hours.
"For the average person who has a car, they're not thinking about that," said Browder. "But if you're elderly and you need milk and eggs, you're very limited in how many times you can go to the grocery store and also what you can carry back."
The mobile grocery, said Browder, "eliminates that issue."