EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a monthly column series, “Compassion in Action,” written by members of the Olean Area Charter of Compassion, and will feature Olean’s many agencies that reach out to those in need.

OLEAN — Veggie Wheels, the nonprofit formerly known as the Veggie Mobile, began in 2015 with a mission to provide healthy food options to low-income people and families in Cattaraugus County.

The emphasis is on fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and the goal is to reduce the incidence of diet-related health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. These diseases occur at very high rates in our county. Veggie Wheels has found a way to greatly increase accessibility to healthy choices.

Now a program in the Cattaraugus County Department of Health, Veggie Wheels is supported through grants and by donations to the Veggie Wheels Fund at the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation, said Athena Godet-Calogeras, the program’s director.

Volunteers pick up produce from participating local farms, such as Canticle Farm, Faulkner Farm, Great Valley Berry Patch and Tan Childs Blueberries. Fruit and vegetables are transported to each of four low-income housing facilities in Olean and two in Salamanca.  Additional volunteers set up tables to display the produce. On a recent day the vegetables included several choices of salad greens, including leaf lettuce and kale; two types of summer squash; and onions, beets, dill and even some kohlrabi. In neatly packed plastic bags there were right-from-the-bush blueberries, which are a big hit with children.

Residents are provided with a calendar and schedule so they know exactly what day and time Veggie Wheels will arrive each week. At the designated time, residents line up with their shopping bags and make their selections, while volunteers answer questions and make suggestions about how to prepare various vegetables.   

The program includes an educational component as well. Each week there are demonstrations about how to make vegetable dishes and tasting samples are provided. For example, if someone wasn’t sure what pickled beets could taste like, there is a plate of bite-size samples to try.  

Godet-Calogeras also showed residents how to make summer snacks with watermelon, mint and feta cheese.  

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In order to measure the program’s direct impact, surveys are distributed. Data from last year showed that more than 60 percent of those receiving the vegetables and dietary education from Veggie Wheels reported weight loss, with one woman reporting a loss of 70 pounds.

“There is a continuing need in our county to address the serious health problems that are linked to poor diet,” Godet-Calogeras explained, “and the good news is that these conditions can often be prevented with a healthy diet and education about good nutrition.”

This year a few residents from housing complexes in both Olean and Salamanca have joined the ranks of volunteers and now help with the project.

When Peggy, one of the resident volunteers from Hillview Homes, was asked why she helps out, she replied, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Genna, a mother with two infants, is grateful for Veggie Wheels.

“Some people just can’t afford produce,” she said.

Volunteers say Veggie Wheels brings people from different parts of the county together as a community, and the sense of community extends to the men and women of participating local farms whose labor supplies the fresh produce to the program.

Anyone interested in volunteering may contact Godet-Calogeras at athenagc@icloud.com. Donations can be made to the Veggie Wheels Fund at CRCF, 301 N. Union St., Suite 301, Olean, N.Y., 14760; or online at Cattfoundation.org.

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