Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Len Sunde heads out the door of his East Valley home to Valley Metro’s Bus Operations and Maintenance Facility in Mesa. Like every bus operator, he performs a daily pre-trip inspection to ensure the bus is safe for travel. Then, he hits the road. But instead of transporting people, he carries hundreds of pounds of produce.
“We’re making this bus work for people in the community in a different way,” he said.
A Refreshing Concept
Len drives Fresh Express, a re-purposed Valley Metro bus that has literally been transformed into a moving grocery store filled with bins of natural foods from apples and avocados to potatoes and peppers.
“Fresh Express is a mobile produce market that provides equal opportunity access to fresh produce for people in food deserts,” described Elyse Guidas, Executive Director of Fresh Express.
What is a food desert?
“In these areas, residents have little to no access to transportation and a grocery store is at least a mile away,” explained Elyse. “It’s especially problematic in the summer when it’s hot and families have to walk to the store, so instead, they rely on what’s around the corner.”
What’s around the corner typically tends to be cheaper food that’s highly processed and less healthy.
“We are all about creating a safe place for families to have abundant access to fruits and vegetables at low-cost,” said Elyse. “We are committed to helping our customers make healthy choices to better their lives.”
Fresh Express came to fruition two years ago with inspiration from Don Keuth, CEO of the Discovery Triangle, a group that works to bring redevelopment to the urban core between Phoenix, Tempe and Papago Park. Many neighborhoods in the Discovery Triangle have limited access to grocery stores and healthy food. Keuth heard about a mobile produce market in his hometown of Chicago so he worked to develop a similar model in Phoenix.
“It was a foreign concept to pitch here in the Valley,” said Elyse. “People would ask how do you even get a bus?”
Enter Valley Metro. Keuth reached out acquire a bus that was being retired from service, which occurs when a bus reaches 500,000 miles or surpasses the 12-year mark. Discovery Triangle partnered with Valley Metro to retrofit a 40-foot bus and First Transit to provide the operator and maintenance.
“Transportation of the produce is a critical pillar to the Fresh Express program,” said Elyse. “The partnership with Valley Metro and First Transit has kept our program afloat.”
A Driving Force
Len is not only our driver,” explained Elyse. “He is part of our team. He creates an open, inviting culture for our guests.”
Len is employed by First Transit, who has been providing in-kind operations support to Fresh Express since February 2014.
For him, driving the Fresh Express bus is not just about transporting goods, it’s about making human connections.
“I can’t sit here and just be the driver,” said Len. “The training I received as a bus operator enables me to help people up and down the bus ramp or by holding their shopping basket for them. I deliver food to customers’ rooms when they can’t physically leave. You may be the only person they talk to all day long.”
Fresh Express makes dozens of stops each month at schools, senior centers and other key community gathering places in underserved neighborhoods. For example, Len drives Fresh Express to the Salvation Army in downtown Phoenix twice a month and greets regular customers like Martin Tatum.
“I like the people,” said Martin. “They’re cheerful. They’re helpful. They’re fun to talk to. They don’t make you feel like there’s something wrong with you because you’re shopping here.”
Providing a helping hand comes naturally for Len who’s been in customer service all of his career from sacking groceries and selling appliances at Sears to now helping keep Fresh Express moving.
“It’s an amazing job,” Len admitted. “When I tell people what I do, I tell them I love it. I have no problem getting up in the morning to go to work.”
This originally appeared on the Valley Metro's blog on 5/3/16. See more at: http://www.valleymetro.org/inside_the_ride/detail/fresh-express#sthash.6XlgfkSw.dpuf