Bringing produce to a lot of people

Bounty & Soul mobile program serving growing population

Fred McCormick

Two years ago Bounty & Soul set out on an ambitious mission with a simple goal; bring fresh produce to local communities for free. That program, appropriately named “Produce to the People,” began doing just that, with weekly mobile markets open to local community members.

As of last fall, Produce to the People was providing around 6,000 pounds of fresh produce to 600 people weekly between its St. James Episcopal Church, Owen Middle School and Black Mountain Elementary School markets. Since January, those needs have grown significantly.

Bounty & Soul executive director Bruce Ganger started in September, 2016.

“We’ve seen a 30 percent increase in the attendees at our markets,” he said. “So we’re serving significantly more people. These are working families, seniors, veterans.”

The market at St. James on Tuesday, May 16, like every Produce to the People market, opened with a 45-minute health and wellness lesson. An Asheville-based expert on foraging talked to dozens of attendees about the benefits of reishi (also known as lingzhi) mushrooms, which are known for their health benefits, such as boosting the immune system.

Following the presentation attendees were called up in groups to choose from a literal bounty of fresh produce, which had been picked up and delivered earlier that morning by “Little Miss Green Jean,” Bounty & Soul’s refrigerated box truck that was made possible through a 2015 grant from the Episcopal Diocese of WNC. Many of the fresh fruits and vegetables available, like the avocados, included corresponding, printed recipes.

Roughly a third of the people attending the market on May 16 were faces Ganger had not seen the week before, so word has certainly gotten out about the program.

“We recently moved our Thursday market to Owen Middle School because we ran out of space where we were before (Creative Village Daycare),” Ganger said. “We just outgrew the space.”

Bounty & Soul is now distributing “about 7,500 pounds of food" at the public markets each week, according to Ganger.

“Thankfully we’ve been able to identify more sources of food,” he said, but the coming summer poses new challenges.

Food insecure families that may have been able to make it through the school year due to programs like free lunch will need to look elsewhere, and Produce to the People will be one such place.

“A lot of these kids will be going to the refrigerator and cupboard saying ‘mom, I’m hungry,’” Ganger said. “We expect we’ll see another spike, like the one we’ve seen in recent months, coming to our markets in the summer months for people needing additional food.”

The increased demand during the summer means Bounty & Soul, a non-profit organization that relies on five employees and over 130 volunteers, will need to try to find additional sources of food.

"This is one of those instances where in order for us to go access the food we need and get it distributed back out to the people who need it, we're going to need additional funds," he said. "We'll need the community's help through donations because we're going to have to require more time from our stuff, we'll have more miles to drive and we may have to go out and buy food, which is something we've done before"

Community support, which has been strong since founder and director of programs, Ali Casparian started Bounty & Soul in 2012, is vital when it comes to Produce to the People, according to Ganger.

"You see all walks of life in the folks who come to our markets," he said. "You see all races, ages, genders, families, couples, the composition of the market looks just like the community. These are people who are doing work in the community but there just isn't enough money coming in to meet all of the needs that household has."

The fact that participants in the program reflect such a diverse demographic in the community reflects how indispensable Bounty & Soul is in the Swannanoa Valley.

"This organization is a community treasure," Ganger said. "If Bounty & Soul did not exist in this community there would be a huge gap that the community couldn't afford to fill. Not just in food distribution, but also in health and wellness."

Throughout its five-year history Bounty & Soul has been to make the community healthier, especially the at-risk populations, through the resources provided its programs, according to Ganger.

"We have a program we've started in conjunction with the (Mountain Area Health Education Center) in Swannanoa where we make available to them what I refer to as a prescription box of food," Ganger said. "So if the physician has a patient who has Type 1 diabetes and his or her diet needs to be adjusted. They can refer those patients to us because Ali is a certified health coach and nutritionist."

Bounty & Soul can then build a box to meet those patients dietary needs.

"We have attendees going to our markets now that used to be diabetic and now are not," Ganger said. "And they can point right back to the food and the health and wellness programs as having an impact."