On an overcast day at the North Laurel Community Center, Howard Countians picking up their weekly meal kits from the Roving Radish trickled in, punctuating the midday quiet of the parking lot at the North Laurel Community Center every 15 minutes or so.
But people come in waves to pick up food when the truck stops 12 miles away, at the Bain Center in Columbia, the Roving Radish's manager says.
Varied community response to Howard County's health-conscious meal delivery pilot program has been just one of the lessons that county officials are learning throughout its trial run, which began the week after the Fourth of July and ends just before Thanksgiving Day.
"It's a pilot, so you're testing the concept and feasibility of everything," said Elizabeth Edsall Kromm, who has worked on the program as policy director for Howard County. But, she said, it's been "so far, so good" in the first couple weeks.
In a statement about the program, County Executive Ken Ulman said Howard officials were "pleased with the initial response to our pilot program. We want to get more fresh, affordable, healthful and easy-to-prepare meals into the community, and the Roving Radish is helping us reach that goal. As our food programs evolve, we hope to develop a full range of offerings to promote health and sustainability for residents and businesses in Howard County. This is an important step in that direction."
The pilot program, which was announced in May, delivers fresh, pre-cut food to five different locations in the county each week. In addition to the drop-off points at the North Laurel Community Center and the Bain Center, the Roving Radish travels to the Y of Central Maryland in Ellicott City, Bridgeway Community Church and the Monarch Mills apartment complex, both in Columbia.
Edsall Kromm said the locations were chosen based on economic diversity and access to healthy foods. The North Laurel Community Center, for example, is in a Healthy Eating Active Living, or HEAL, zone, an area targeted for assistance in increasing availability to fresh produce.
Given the need for better access to healthy food in the area, "we thought [the North Laurel Community Center] was going to be our best location," Edsall Kromm said. Instead, it's been one of the least busy spots.
"Maybe it's the time of day for the pickup" – between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Wednesdays – "or maybe we need another location in that ZIP code," she said.
Meanwhile, Roving Radish market manager James Zoller has noticed a trend at the Bain Center, one of the more popular pick-up sites. Many of his returning customers are senior citizens, who say the truck has helped make their lives easier, he said.
Edsall Kromm said she had met one older woman who was planning to make the meals and freeze them because she was too tired to cook at the end of the day. For some seniors who have arthritis, the pre-cut foods facilitate home cooking, Zoller said.
And though Edsall Kromm didn't think the county was tracking Roving Radish participants by age group, "we've heard anecdotally that this is a very affordable option for seniors on fixed incomes," she said.
Meal kits, which contain enough ingredients for two meals for a family of four, sell for $24. However, the county sells $10 subsidized kits for lower-income participants.
The program's goal was to have 50 percent or more of the kits they sold be subsidized, according to Edsall Kromm. So far, the percentage of subsidized kits sold is about 45 percent, which "has been really great to see," she said.
Edsall Kromm said it was too early to know whether the Roving Radish program would pay for itself, or whether it would lose money. This year, the program has been bolstered by a $50,000 grant from the United Way to support the subsidized meal kits, as well as a six-month lease for the program's red, white and green refrigerated truck, from the Apple Ford car dealership.
"It's hard to say right now, but we're tracking the numbers closely," she said. However, "we won't be making money." Edsall Kromm said the $24 payment for the non-subsidized meal kits covered the cost for the food and packaging.
In addition to the county's own self-evaluation, the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University is also doing an evaluation of the Roving Radish pilot, Edsall Kromm said.
Whether the food truck is renewed for next season could be dependent on the next county executive's priorities.
But if it does come back, she said, next steps for the Roving Radish could be to add options for vegetarians and people with allergies.
The program also has room to expand its local produce offerings. While some of the produce included in the kits comes from county farms, most of it is regional.
Currently, "a lot of our farms in Howard County are selling commodities, so they don't have the acreage of produce or protein that we need," said Edsall Kromm.
She said that next year, deliveries might start earlier in the season.
"My hope would be that we would be able to start again, after planning and evaluation, to coincide with the opening of the farmers market," which starts in early May, she added.
Roving Radish food truck participants are enjoying the program for now.
At the North Laurel Community Center, Ruth Utz said the Roving Radish "makes it easier to figure out what to cook."
Because her vegetarian daughter doesn't eat the meals, Utz said she ended up having enough ingredients for more than two meals a week for her, her husband and another daughter.
Jacquelyn Barnes said the meal kits were a great deal.
"It's definitely a good thing for this community," she said. Elsewhere, "people pay a lot of money for services like this. Hopefully, they'll be able to keep it going."