By Daniel A. Brown
One of Stephanie Schuster’s most vivid memories is watching a child sob as he begged his teacher for a snack to take home. The child’s family was food insecure, and he often went to bed hungry.
“People can live in their own little bubble,” said the Jacksonville resident, “and I decided to leave mine and planned to eventually do something.”
That “something” turned out to be Jax Portable Produce, Schuster’s mobile produce business designed to bridge the gap between a conventional grocery story and food deserts in Jacksonville.
Her idea was recently brought to life thanks to a $10,000 national grant competition. She is one of only eight grantees across the country to receive this grant, a partnership between United Way Worldwide and Stacy’s Pita Chips’ Rise Project to empower female entrepreneurs.
“This grant and working with United Way are really aligned with the values and standards that I believe in,” said Schuster. “And I was really pleased that this is a woman entrepreneurship program.”
Ten years ago, Schuster would visit schools where her friends worked as Teach for America educators. During these visits, she would participate in a learn-to-read program with the kids, who turned out to also struggle with food insecurity.
“Naïve as it might sound, I’d had a fairly privileged life and had no idea that food insecurity was even a thing,” said Schuster. “That experience of knowing some of these kids might go to bed hungry at night woke me up.”
Challenges including lack of income and lack of reliable transportation create additional burdens on those living in food insecure areas. Food insecure neighborhoods, known more commonly as food deserts, are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources.” For example, a food desert might have convenience stores but no supermarkets selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
While the precise number can fluctuate, local experts say there are several areas in Jacksonville that could qualify as food deserts.
Now, Schuster is dedicated to getting behind the wheel, literally, of an idea that is innovative, altruistic and impactful to increase access to nutritious produce in these areas.
Schuster recently bought a used school bus. Her friends helped her sand and paint the exterior. The grant funding will allow her to install flooring as well as a SNAP/EBT machine.
With two stalls of fresh produce lining each opposing wall, the bus interior will resemble an aisle in a grocery store. Customers will simply enter, pick what foods they’d like, pay, and then leave through the back of this store-on-wheels. Eventually, Schuster hopes to offer meats and dairy.
With a tentative goal to hit the road in March, she’ll be behind the wheel three days a week, pulling up into local neighborhoods and parking her mobile green grocers.
Key to Schuster’s vision is buying or receiving donations of what she calls “ugly produce”: perfectly good, fresh foods that would be otherwise discarded.
Phase One of Jax Portable Produce is working in North and Northwest Jacksonville, where Schuster has been welcomed by community centers and churches to park in their lots. Next, she plans to visit locations in the Westside and Mayport.
She’ll visit locations the same days each week, building trust and rapport with communities who will now receive consistent, much-needed, access to nutritious foods.
“We are so grateful for Stephanie’s passion for making a difference while also spotlighting the importance and impact of female entrepreneurship,” said United Way of Northeast Florida affinity groups manager Emily Lawrence, who connects local women leaders to causes they care about through Women United. “We congratulate Stephanie not only on her grant win but, more importantly, on what she will accomplish for so many in need in Northeast Florida.”
To stay up-to-date on Jax Portable Produce’s journey, follow @jaxportableproduce on Instagram. Through United Way’s initiatives and partnerships with companies like Stacy’s Pita Chips, local change makers like Schuster are empowered and encouraged to raise awareness and build solutions for those who are, quite literally, hungering for assistance.
Are you interested in giving back in Northeast Florida? Contact United Way of Northeast Florida any time at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect your passions to purpose. Learn more about United Way’s work in Northeast Florida at unitedwaynefl.org.