People living in the area of Rock Island's 11th Street are in a "food desert," a term used to describe low-income neighborhoods with no ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

Because full-line grocery stores are one-half to a mile away, residents without access to a car or bus might not be able to get to a store, said Betty Gavin of the University of Illinois Extension-Rock Island County.

But beginning Sunday, residents will be able to ride a free bus once a month to shop at the Hy-Vee Food Store, 2930 18th Ave., and Aldi Foods, 1817 38th St.

And while they're on the bus, an Extension educator will talk about food, nutrition, wellness and saving money.

"It won't be a formal presentation, but rather than riding in silence and looking out the window, we'll have an educator talk informally, but directly, about what's on sale, five ways to cook chicken, what to do with squash, have you ever tried to eat a certain kind of vegetable," Gavin said.

"Maybe he'll have a sample to share. It's intended to help people get the most out of their food dollars. It will be more or less a conversation, with people sharing back and forth. It's a captive audience, so we're hoping to direct them toward nutrition, wellness and making good choices," she added.

The Supermarket Shuttle will operate once a month through September, with pickups and drop-offs at seven locations: Sunset Heights apartments, Frances Willard Elementary School, Westside Church of Christ, Douglas Park, Century Woods Apartments, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, Spencer Towers apartments and the Word of Life Christian Center.

Gavin hopes to offer a shuttle in a food desert area of Moline/East Moline as early as March.

The bulk of the funding — about $14,000 — is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, education program via the University of Illinois Extension.

That amount will pay to hire the part-time educator, marketing and materials.

An additional $2,200 to pay for the Johannes Bus Service vehicle and driver comes from Activate Rock Island, an initiative facilitated by the Two Rivers YMCA to promote healthier living.

Extension is getting the word out through flyers and other information distributed at all of the pickup locations, the county health department, area food pantries, Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, clinics, schools and Casa Guanajuato, an organization serving Latinos in the Quad-Cities.

Gavin admits that there are lots of variables: Will people use the service? Will the time — 1-4 p.m. the third Sunday of each month — work out? 

But Gavin — the SNAP education program coordinator for the Extension unit serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Stark counties — has attended a lot of meetings to brainstorm ideas on how to get nutritious food in the hands of people who might not otherwise have access.

"We finally said, 'Has anybody tried just bringing people out to these stores?' " she said.

Christie Philby of the Two Rivers Y doesn't expect the shuttle will solve the entire problem. But if reliable transportation is what prevents people from getting healthy food, then it will help, she said.