Originally Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2014, 9:53 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2014, 10:05 pm

New supermarket shuttle debuts in Rock Island

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Erek Bell helps load groceries onto a bus in front of Aldi in Rock Island on Sunday, February 16, 2014. Mr. Bell works with the University of Illinois Extension Office and assisted Rock Island residents who rode the shuttle service from their homes to the grocery store.
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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Ganga Sapkota waits with his milk and other groceries for the shuttle bus to pick him up in front of Aldi in Rock Island on Sunday, February 16, 2014. Mr. Sapkota was one of several people to take advantage of a new University of Illinois Extension program that offers free Sunday bus service to local grocery stores for residents without cars.
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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Marie Richard selects boxes of cereal at Aldi in Rock Island on Sunday, February 16, 2014. Ms. Richard and a handful of others who do not own cars took a shuttle bus to the grocery store to shop for food.

ROCK ISLAND — The University of Illinois Extension is extending a hand to anyone in Rock Island who needs help getting to the grocery store. Four residents on Sunday took advantage of a new, free monthly bus service.

The "supermarket shuttle" (using a school bus) will stop at eight pick-up locations, connecting people to Hy-Vee and Aldi on 18th Avenue, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. It will continue on the third Sunday of each month through September 2014.

"We hope to be serving a need that's out there," said Betty Gavin, Extension SNAP education coordinator for Rock Island, Mercer, Henry and Stark counties. "The food desert area we were looking at is the west side of the city and going toward Spencer Towers. Many of the people in that target area do not have access to transportation.

"Or if they have a car, maybe they don't feel comfortable taking it out on the streets with the weather, and maybe (a bus is) more convenient for them," she said. A "food desert" encompasses neighborhoods that typically have a high percentage of poverty, difficult access to transportation and are a good distance from a full-service grocery store, Ms. Gavin said.

In addition to offering convenient transportation, the free shuttle is intended to empower participants to make healthier food choices. It's supported by a $14,000 USDA grant from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food-stamp benefits and is co-sponsored by Activate Rock Island.

On each bus route, University of Illinois Extension's nutrition and wellness staff offer helpful shopping tips, as well as some easy, healthful and tasty recipes for riders to try. A program goal is to help stretch families food-stamp benefits and offer options for fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.

One of Sunday's riders was Marie Richard, of Rock Island, an immigrant from the Congo, who said she usually gets a ride to the supermarket from a friend. She lives with her mother and two children, ages 17 and 12, is studying at Black Hawk College and tries to take the bus to Hy-Vee and Aldi about once per week.

"It's difficult to get there because you have to take two buses. You have to change the bus," Ms. Chard said. "You have to bring everything on the bus."

Of the Extension service, she said: "I'm so happy because it's much easier. You don't have to have someone give you a ride."

Arjun Bhattarai, an immigrant from Bhutan, lives in Rock Island with his father and brother. He also takes a bus or asks a friend to the grocery store. He usually shops at Aldi and said he appreciated the new shuttle.

Offering food information beyond a free ride is important, Ms. Gavin said.

"Making healthier choices for all of us is a constant issue," she said. "We all have to be much more aware of what healthier decisions might look like. I think it's an issue for us as a society, with childhood obesity rates, all kinds of things — the amount of diabetes, heart disease. Healthy eating is definitely part of that. I'm hoping people will utilize this service, have better access to healthier foods."

Ms. Gavin has worked with many organizations — such as the Rock Island Housing Authority apartment complexes, Martin Luther King Center, Quad Cities Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees and churches — to encourage people to use the service.

"I think it's great," Gail Brooks, public relations coordinator for Rock Island Housing Authority, said. "Transportation is always a challenge for residents." A few years ago, the authority offered a similar shuttle, which included trips to Walmart and Hy-Vee, she noted.

"It was wildly accepted; people loved it," Ms. Brooks said. "There was more emphasis just on transportation. It was wildly successful. This is really exciting."

Based on the success of the Rock Island shuttle, Extension may work to extend the service beyond September, and into a possible Moline/East Moline route, Ms. Gavin said. "We hope to learn things from this one," she said. "We plan to do some evaluation with the participants, so we have a pretty good idea of who's riding, so we are able to have some information for the potential in seeing this be sustained in the future."

The next ride will be on March 16. For route times and more information, contact University of Illinois Extension at 309-756-9978 or web.extension.illinois.edu/hmrs.