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Wednesday, 24 August 2011 20:16

Produce vouchers connect farmers with the needy

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Food stamps and food pantry vouchers are finding their way into the farmers markets in Jackson and Swain counties, putting local produce into hands of the needy who are often quick to cut healthy, but more expensive, fresh fruits and veggies from their diets and budgets.

The Bryson City Food Pantry is in its second year of a program called Farm to Family, handing out $5 vouchers to the weekly Swain County Farmers Market. The initiative started with a surplus of funds that the food pantry needed to spend.

Because the pantry’s premises are pretty tight, it had never been able to offer produce before. There was no refrigeration for it.

So when the idea was floated that the money be put toward the farmers market, it seemed perfect.

“I mean, we could have given them vouchers to go to the grocery store and find produce,” said Renee Mulligan, who helped start the program, “but we wanted to support the local farmers.”

Mulligan now works for Cherokee Choices, a health program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but she used to be a cooperative extension agent, where she helped get the idea going.

For families who visit the food pantry, what they’re getting is dry or canned goods and many can’t afford to buy fresh produce.

“For health and disease prevention, it’s extremely important, but it’s also a matter of access in rural areas,” said Mulligan. “It’s important for them to have access to fruits and vegetables in a way that’s convenient.”

With that in mind, the food pantry gives out the vouchers on Friday, the same morning that the farmers market is open just down the street next to the old courthouse.

There, under a smattering of canopies, farmers and crafters set up to peddle their products each Friday in season.

Don and Belinda Carringer said that they’ve been pretty pleased with the new customers they’ve gotten through the program. They sell produce at markets in both Swain and Macon counties.

“We love the program because it’s great for us and it’s great for them, they get fresh produce,” said Don Carringer.

The vouchers are only good for fruits and vegetables, not fish, meat or other market wares like crafts.

Carringer said his patrons with vouchers seemed happy to be able to get their farm-fresh produce, and Belinda said that she often provides recipes to voucher customers, giving them ideas on using what they’ve just bought.

That’s another problem that’s plaguing the country’s low-income families.

“People who aren’t used to having those kinds of things in their diets might not know what to do with those or how to prepare them,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva.

Her organization has a garden worked by volunteers who give a third of its bounty to the Community Table, which shares the yields with clients who come to them in need of food.

Now, they’re also taking donations from the Jackson County Farmers Market, where vendors can deposit their unsold produce that might otherwise be on the compost pile at the end of a selling day.

The Community Table is working the fresh food into the hot meals it serves, as well as packing it in the boxes sent home with locals strapped for food.

Grimes said she’s seen an increase in interest from her clients in the produce, and in learning how to prepare and serve it.

She hopes that by next year, she’ll have classes running to teach those skills.

Whether it was on the old-school food pyramid or its more modern, streamlined offspring the food plate, we’ve learned since childhood that fruits and veggies are foundational for a healthy diet.

The plates of the needy, however, are far less likely to play host to leafy greens and other garden bounty.

Earlier this year, the USDA released a study that proved what community workers like Grimes have seen firsthand: the closer a family comes to the poverty line, the less they spend on fruit and vegetables.

Americans who make 300 percent more than the federal poverty level — that’s around $66,000 for a family of four — will spend about 50 percent more on fresh produce than families at or just above the poverty line.

“It’s stuff that’s pretty expensive to buy in the store,” said Grimes. “I mean, avocados are two for $5 now.”

Besides what it’s sending to the Community Table, the Jackson County Farmers Market is also opening another option to people who perhaps couldn’t ordinarily afford its local, organic fare.

After a multi-year effort, the Jackson market will soon be able to accept food stamps. An EBT machine, which reads the electronic debit cards issued to food stamp recipients, will be set-up at the market.

“It’ll provide an avenue for people who need it to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables that are fresh and local,” said Jenny McPherson, who manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.

In Swain County, the voucher program is proving to be a win-win for all parties, said Christy Bredenkamp, the extension horticulture agent who is running it in partnership with the food pantry.

“We’re worried about food security in Swain County and really in Western North Carolina. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling financially and the quality of their food is really not as good, so this is a way for them to get fresh produce that’s more healthy for them,” said Bredenkamp. “And the vendors like it because it’s extra income for them, and they’re tapping in to customers they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

In just the first year, they handed out nearly 600 vouchers, and 73 percent were actually used. Similar, federally funded farmers market programs only had a redemption rate of around 60 percent, said Mulligan, who considers the program a success.

In its second year now, organizers hope it will continue to support local growers, who took home an extra $2,150 last year from the vouchers. They’re currently looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future.

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