There are a lot of moving parts in Virtua Health’s growing South Jersey network, including some literal ones – 57 vehicles to be exact. In addition to its brick-and-mortar locations, the health care provider is meeting the needs of its communities through its fleet of 10 mobile health vehicles.
Beyond autos that can help after something has happened, ambulances for responding to medical emergencies, for example, Virtua uses vehicles to achieve its mission to “help you be well, get well, stay well,” offering preventative screenings and services as well as affordable and nutritious food options delivered directly where they’re most needed.
“We knew … that we really had an obligation to really serve the residents of Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in a different way than just providing health care to them in our typical brick-and-mortar places,” Debra Moran, senior vice president of health equity and community programs, told NJBIZ. “And we really look at food insecurity as one of the areas that we could help tackle and improve upon.”
“We decided back in 2017 that we wanted to make a difference in a different way in people’s lives and to really be able to help them to be healthier; and to help do all that we could to help reduce food insecurity,” Moran said.
That’s when Virtua launched its Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market, housed in a 23-foot bus that offers fresh produce year-round. In 2021, the provider expanded the program with the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store – the state’s first mobile supermarket.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10.4% of U.S. households are food insecure, meaning they are “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, at some time during the year, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” New Jersey comes in below that average at 8.3%.
In an effort to address access to food, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority launched the Food Desert Relief program earlier this year, identifying a list of 50 communities across the state that qualify as food deserts and making efforts within those areas to remediate the problem by building grocery stores eligible for incentives. Of the municipalities included on the list, from all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, five are in counties covered by the Eat Well program. Camden County had two regions identified in the top five highest scorers from the NJEDA’s assessment, including the No. 1 spot on the list.
According to data from the New Jersey Department of Health, an estimated 110,600 people across Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties were food insecure in 2020.
Virtua’s Eat Well program takes a different route to alleviate food insecurity.
“What we wanted to do is meet the residents of these counties where they are, and to meet their needs,” Moran explained. To figure out what that looked like, she said Virtua employed some focus groups and surveys. The feedback indicated that food insecurity was “very, very high” with many residents unsure of where their next meal would come from, or how they were going to get it.
In the City of Camden, Moran explained, there really aren’t any grocery stores within walking distance, which creates complications. She described a scenario in which someone may take a bus to the supermarket, incurring an additional cost, and then travel home via cab or a ride-hailing service – another, higher cost – so that they can transport their purchases. Aside from adding inconvenience to the equation, the journey also necessitated costs that diminish the amount of food someone can actually purchase.
The Mobile Farmers Market traverses its service area every week, making nearly 10 regular stops and offering fresh options at accessible prices: a small bag of six produce items for $3; a medium bag of 12 produce items for $6; or a large bag of 20 produce items for $9. Additionally, SNAP/EBT cardholders receive 50% off a one-bag purchase, per customer.
Moran says the Farmers Market visits the same spots, so that residents know when and where they’re coming, creating a reliable and sustaining food option. Virtua dieticians and community health associates also travel with the market and are able to offer recipes and help people learn how to cook with the items they’re getting. And where there are no options, that impact is real. Driving the point home, Moran described a child eating a banana for the first time “who had never even known or eaten” one before.
In 2022, Virtua held 849 markets in the community it serves between its Farmers Market and another component of its fleet: the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. Rolled out at the start of 2021, the 40-foot former NJ Transit bus is now a one-aisle supermarket that is also helping to turn the tide on accessibility and reframing the conversation around well-being. According to Virtua’s website, the “year-round store-on-wheels” is part of the provider’s “portfolio of programs that position food as a form of medicine.”
Powered by philanthropic donors, Moran describes the unit as “a true grocery store,” offering fruits and vegetables along with grains, meat, fish and dairy products, as well as some hygiene and household essentials.
The Eat Well program visits rural areas in addition to urban locations, which Moran points out can also create difficulty when it comes to accessing fresh food options. As with the Farmers Market, the Mobile Supermarket is designed to meet people where they are and to create a resource that people can rely on.
The Eat Well program’s services set up at senior centers and shopping complexes in addition to partnering with faith-based groups. To develop its schedules, “We partner with our community to see where the best locations should be for where the greatest needs are,” Moran said.
In 2022 Virtua’s Eat Well program recorded more than 35,000 transactions. On average, 22% of point-of-sale transactions are paid by SNAP/EBT cards.
And though the items are sold, the goal here isn’t to turn a profit. Moran says the price points are actually significantly reduced. “We’ll sell a loaf of bread for 50 cents or a dollar because, again, we know people are struggling and we don’t want food to be an obstacle – or the price of food to be an obstacle – that they won’t be able to afford it,” she explained.
The food for the Eat Well program comes from several sources.
In addition to South Jersey Food Bank, the program has relationships with Whole Foods Markets and Rastelli Market Fresh. While it doesn’t have an official relationship with Aldi, it will purchase groceries from the discount supermarket chain. And that pool of partners may be expanded.
When it comes to making things better for individuals, “It’s really about the right thing to do,” Moran said.
“So, whether it’s our Eat Well programs or these other programs … it’s just about meeting people where they are,” she explained. “We learned several years ago that we have to ask the residents what they need as opposed to what we think they need.”
That feedback then goes into developing efforts like Virtua’s mobile programs. And though all those initiatives don’t fall under Eat Well and Moran’s direct purview, they do roll on wheels.
Virtua introduced its Pediatric Mobile Services program in June 2018. The fully equipped vehicle delivers a range of services, including dental and developmental screenings, blood lead level testing, lead poisoning education, flu shots, back-to-school physicals, vision and hearing screenings, health education, community resources, and referrals to specialized services to children from infancy through 6 years of age.
Now, the most-recent addition to Virtua’s fleet is gearing up to hit the road next month.
After previously leasing a mobile mammography vehicle, Virtua’s own 40-foot, $1 million customized Mobile Health & Cancer Screening Vehicle will offer approximately 6,000 cancer screenings annually—six times as many as it was previously able to provide.
Bringing the service in-house allows Virtua to operate more effectively and to make the program its own. In addition to 3D mammography, the new vehicle offers clinical breast and gynecologic exams, Pap smears, colorectal screenings, PSA blood tests for prostate cancer for men and other services. When the vehicle was announced, Virtua Health President and CEO Dennis Pullin described the effort as “another example of Virtua and its partners and donors working together to build communities of wellness.”
The pediatric and mobile health units don’t follow the same kind of schedule as the Eat Well vehicles do, but they do also function through collaboration. The former coordinates visits to day cares, community centers, “places where we know we’ll reach a lot of people.” Schedules are made with those community partners and the services offered can be changed, accordingly, for the season (back to school or flu, for instance) or to meet specific needs.
Significant recent developments at health care systems around New Jersey
Through its participation with New Jersey Cancer Education and Early Detection, or NJCEED, Virtua provides free mammograms and other cancer screenings to individuals without insurance or who are under-insured on the Mobile Health & Cancer Screening Vehicle. And the system is seeking new community partners to expand access. Maybe that’s a business, a church group, “or even just an individual person who recognizes that help needs to be convenient, that we can meet them halfway,” explained Daniel Moise, Virtua’s director of communications and engagement. “If you bring the people, we’ll come to you.”
“We’re hopeful that moving forward somebody will say ‘I have … this concentration of employees, come out and see us,’” he said. “And especially for people who perhaps have multiple jobs, have child care responsibility, we can come and meet them where they are and all they have to do is take a quick break from their day to be seen.
“So, we’re really looking right now to build those relationships,” Moise continued, “and pretty much anyone who wants to call us and see what’s possible is invited to do so.”
Virtua serves the community through five hospitals, seven emergency departments, seven urgent care centers and more than 280 other locations. The rest of its mobile fleet is rounded out by:
Virtua’s brand vision – “Here for Good” – guides its work, running throughout the organization and its hierarchy. That principle has helped to reframe conversations around what constitutes health care, with community health discussed alongside cardiology or orthopedics, for instance, and given the same regard.
Moran described support for the Eat Well and mobile health programs – and health equity overall – from Virtua’s leadership as tremendous. Significant support also comes from Sarah Fawcett-Lee, senior vice president and chief philanthropy officer for Virtua, and her team, according to Moran, as well as the provider’s marketing team.
And that synergy, that buy-in from Pullin, the rest of the executive team and the board of trustees, is “really key” in moving the dial on health equity, according to Moran.
“I always think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” she said describing the work of the Eat Well program. “And let’s say that the bottom rung is, if you don’t have food, shelter, clothing, then you’re never going to be able to get to the next level, let alone get to self-actualization.”
Creating access by being mobile is helping to lay firmer foundations for better health overall.
“This was our opportunity to really serve the community in a very different way than we had in the past,” she said, adding, “And we’ve been extremely successful.”