Willie Latimore has a really hard time getting fresh food. He lost much of his right leg to diabetes a few years ago, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. He lives at Carriage House Apartments in Raleigh, where the rent is based on income.
But Willie's problem is bigger than his personal circumstances. He lives in one of Raleigh's food deserts - an area where it's hard to get fresh, healthy, affordable food - meat, fruit and vegetables. A legislative report earlier this year says that such deserts are a significant problem in the state, affecting 1.5 million people.
There used to be a Kroger near Willie's home, but that closed. Once or twice a week, however, there's a grocery store that rolls right up to Willie's front door. It's called Grocers on Wheels. The project is run by Demetrius Hunter. Demetrius is up before the sun, sourcing fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese from area farmers.
He loads his black pickup truck with the bounty, and drives around Raleigh, where he sells the food right from the back of the truck.
Demetrius' father Zelb started the mobile grocer more than 80 years ago. "Mr. Zelb" first brought produce to the city by horse and wagon from Clayton in 1929. At the time, he hoped to make enough money to buy a car.
Zelb Hunter continued to bring produce to the city on-and-off throughout the years. He took a break to fight in World War II, but resumed the deliveries when he returned.
After he retired from a job with the state, Mr. Zelb expanded the mobile grocery business.
"I can go back three generations, almost four, that know my dad. They love him," Demetrius says.
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Mr. Zelb doesn't go out with the mobile grocer much these days. He's 93-years-old now. But on a recent Saturday, Zelb Hunter rode the route again with his son. His first stop was the Carriage House Apartments where Willie Latimore lives.
"Mr. Zelb is still alive?" marveled Willie. He immediately shook Zelb's hand. Willie asked about Mr. Zelb's health and admired his trim physique. And then he talked about how much the mobile grocer had helped Willie and his friends and neighbors.
"Mr. Zelb, he treated us right. And a lot of times you have no other way to get to the store. And he’d come here," Willie recalls, noting especially that Mr. Zelb would extend credit to people when times were tough.
Growing the business
Demetrius ran the business by himself after his dad retired. It was hard. These days he's working with Anita Woodley. (Anita used to work for WUNC. She left a few years ago to pursue an acting career.)
In addition to selling the produce from the truck, occasionally Anita will set up a performance for her customers. She plays the character of her know-it-all great-grandmother, Suga Babe.
"We're gonna make a thing they call a smoothie," Suga Babe tells the crowd assembled at the back of a housing project in Raleigh. She brings out food from the truck - peaches and apples, and shows how they can be blended with water and vegetables like kale to make a healthy snack. Anita, as Suga Babe, delivers the recipes and know-how to the residents, along with some wisecracks, songs, and a sample of the smoothie.
Spending a day with Grocers on Wheels it's clear how many people in Raleigh need access to fresh food. A farmer's market is just not enough for those who struggle financially and don't live near a grocery store. Even when people are given vouchers for a farmers market, state officials say, many vouchers go unused because of transportation issues.
Kathy Morris was one of the customers the day we visited. She was anxious for some tomatoes to make fried green tomatoes. One of the things she likes about the service is that they offer an informal credit system. Kathy's was not able to pay until following week, but the mobile grocers still gave her food on credit.
Anita Woodley says that providing food for people, and trusting them when they say they will pay at a later date, is an important part of the mission of Grocers on Wheels.
"You get humble real quick when somebody walks up with no leg and they’re like 'Look, I need you to help me,' or ‘I don’t have any money right now. Can I give you some money next week when I get my money?'"
Anita says that she encourages the person to take what they need and pay her back later; she takes the money from her own pocket. "And they’ll come back and say ‘Miss Anita, here’s your money! Thanks I had something to eat.’"
"It's a legacy to be extremely proud of," Demetrius Hunter says.
Note: We conducted our interviews for this story at the heart of the food desert in southeast Raleigh, a shuttered Kroger grocery store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That grocery store closed in 2013. The News & Observer is now reporting that Art Pope's company, Variety Wholesalers, has bought the building.
Pope’s company has bought the Kroger property for $2.57 million, and he says it will have a Roses store and a separate grocery. It’s going to be the first time the company has opened a separate grocery as opposed to having a grocery section in some Roses stores.