By Martin do Nascimento and Omar L. Gallaga
In 2017, The Mercy Brown Bag Program went mobile. The Alameda County, California, program, which has been providing meals for seniors for more than three decades, didn’t adopt an app; it put its program on wheels with a Mobile Grocery Truck that can reach many more community members aged 60 and over.
The truck’s service is made possible by senior volunteers and by staffers such as Alvin Tenpo, who drives the truck and is typically the first person to pick up from the Alameda County Food Bank at around 7:00 a.m. most mornings before leaving to deliver groceries to more than 850 seniors every two weeks across six locations. The custom-designed truck includes a cooler for perishables and displays items available, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, and canned goods, like a mobile storefront. It can serve about 300 people at a time.
Slideshow: ride along with the grocery truck
Alvin Tenpo drives the Mobile Grocery Truck in Alameda County, CA. “I generally leave the warehouse at 6:45 a.m., then I’ll drive to my site and set up the truck," he said. "I drop the shelves and then the action starts.”
Alvin Tenpo navigates Oakland, CA, in the Mobile Grocery Truck. He is the driver of the Mobile Grocery Truck run by Mercy Brown Bag Program, delivering groceries to over 850 seniors every two weeks at six separate locations in Alameda County, California.
The truck is custom-designed with compartments that open on either side and hydraulic shelves that drop down, allowing seniors to walk by and choose their own groceries like in a store. It can hold food for up to 300 people and includes a cooler for perishables.
Mercy Brown Bag Program’s motto is “seniors helping seniors,” and even Tenpo is over 60-years-old. The program dates back to 1982 when, seeing other seniors in their community in need, residents at the Mercy Retirement & Care Center in Oakland, California, decided to do something. Piling into a pickup truck, a handful of senior residents drove out to California’s Central Valley and spent a day picking produce, which they then distributed in Oakland.
Over 500 senior volunteers contribute to Mercy Brown Bag Program’s various operations, helping with everything from packing and delivering grocery bags to registering recipients and managing distribution at each of the Mobile Grocery Truck stops. The senior volunteers who work with the Mobile Grocery Truck are all also program recipients who say they enjoy the work as a means of staying physically active, contributing to their communities, and socializing with others.
Matilde Aguilar Garcia (right) and Lorna Aguilar bag groceries for delivery to seniors who aren’t able make it to the Mobile Grocery Truck at Eden Issei Terrace in Hayward, CA. “Before, people would come over and knock on my door and say ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘Here,’ I’d say, and I’d give them this or that from what I had. Can you imagine what it takes to get to the point of knocking on someone’s door? Even me, I’ve felt ashamed in the past to tell my daughters that I don’t have this or that," Aguilar Garcia said. "But with [the Mobile Grocery Truck], now there’s a support here. It’s fresh and it’s within our reach. And volunteering helps me feel like I give a little of what I’m receiving. Instead of lying down and watching TV, I’m moving my body and my heart. It fills me with joy. I don’t feel tired. I feel joy.”
Volunteer Jean Huckalby helps other seniors serve themselves from the Mobile Grocery Truck at Westlake Christian Terrace in Oakland, CA. “I like helping. I like helping people," she said. "I was a nurse all of my life so I’ll do anything that I can for someone -- it just gives me a joy. The groceries are helpful because our income is so low. Now nobody is saying ‘well, I don’t know what I’m going to cook.’ ”
Geraldine Bownds volunteers with the Mobile Grocery Truck at the Hayward Area Senior Center in Hayward, CA. “I just like to be around people. I don’t want to stay home and stagnate," she said. "I need the food, I have a lot of time to give away, so I come up to help and I like doing this.”
Krista Lucchesi is the Mercy Brown Bag Program Director at Mercy Retirement & Care Center in Oakland, CA. “Seniors in Alameda County, they are trying to be able to afford their medicine, their transportation, their utilities, their rent, so their budgets end up getting to the point where nothing is left for food," Lucchesi said. "Without the truck, they end up going without anything in their cupboards. The best part [of this work] is by far hearing the phone calls of folks who need groceries and knowing that we’ll be able to make a difference.
The Mobile Grocery Truck serves seniors at Westlake Christian Terrace in Oakland, CA. Click here to learn more about the program.
Krista Lucchesi, director of Mercy Brown Bag Program, said that in 2018, the 500 seniors who volunteer helped distribute nearly one and a half million pounds of food. There’s a specific need in the California county; many low-income seniors in the area can’t afford to keep themselves fed. But it’s not a phenomenon unique to the area. According to the National Council on Aging. More than 25 million Americans ages 60 and over are living at or below the federal poverty level of $29,425 a year. Many who live above the poverty level still struggle to meet monthly living expenses, the NCOA says.
“They are trying to make it in Alameda County, which is very expensive, to be able to afford their medicines, their transportation, their utilities, their rent and on and on,” Lucchesi said. “And so, without Mercy Brown Bag Program, they end up going without anything in their cupboards… they tell us how they are now able to make it to the end of the month and have nutritious groceries so that their blood sugar doesn’t go up and they don’t have to go to the hospital anymore.”
The program also provides other benefits to those who are helping provide Mercy Brown Bag’s food services. Lucchesi said, “We have seen that volunteering is probably equally as important to their health as the food itself because giving back, being part of the community, helping others, it does wonders for your socializing, for your spirit, for your soul.”
Geraldine Bownds, a volunteer and recipient, said, “I just like to be around people. I don’t want to stay home and stagnate. I need the food, I have a lot of time to give away, so I just come to help and I like doing this.”