Local Farmers Feed Those in Need
October 11, 2012
by Gloria De Paola
Edible South Shore
Shopping at farmers' markets is a fun and healthy summer outing. But it's almost impossible for families that depend on food stamps and WIC checks to enjoy the superior taste and nutritional benefits of locally grown produce.
WIC (Women, Infants and Children) is a federally funded program that provides free nutrition services and healthy food for low income families. For a family of four with a monthly income of under $3200, WIC is a lifeline to better nutrition. But its good intentions are strictly regulated. It allows pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under age five to purchase nutritionally approved food - low fat milk, the least expensive eggs in the store, 16 ounces of cheese, store-brand cereals, whole grain bread, 100% fruit juices, plain canned foods, brown rice, tofu, and dried beans, to name a few examples - and the food must be purchased in approved supermarkets. There are no WIC coupons for potato chips or sugary soda drinks.
But in 2009 the federal government added a seasonal allowance in WIC coupons for each participant to use at farmers' markets. That small supplement allows a pregnant or nursing mother with two youngsters under the age of five to spend a total of $60 at farmers' markets. From the end of June through October, Farmers' Market Coupons add a welcome dimension to the limited purchases permitted by WIC regulations.
"It gives participants a chance to know the difference between a hot house tomato and a garden fresh tomato," says Darlene Dymsza, director of the WIC program for the New Bedford Community Health Center, who introduced the program to her clients. Ten southeastern Massachusetts farmers share their bounty with the programs' participants.
WIC shoppers pay regular prices at the farmers' markets and they can't use the coupons for luxury items like artisanal soaps or homemade jams. Still, "it's a great partnership for farmers and WIC. It allows our clients to enjoy the freshest produce around," says Darlene, who encourages the mothers to bring their kids to the markets to help pick out what they'd like to eat.
Nine hundred and twenty five WIC farmers' markets coupons were distributed in New Bedford in 2011; despite the program's popularity that figure was reduced by 25% this year because of government cutbacks.
There are other hurdles for families with meager food budgets. Farmers' markets have quirky hours. Plus, they're often located in hard-to-access suburban areas. But Darlene's New Bedford clients can shop at Brooklawn Park on Mondays, Wings Court on Thursdays, and Clasky Common on Saturdays. There are 13 other farmers' markets in Bristol Country from Attleboro to Westport.
The federal food stamp program, renamed SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), is the oldest government program to help low-income families put food on their tables. Now SNAP recipients can use their benefits at many farmers' markets. Manager Barbara Anglin has worked to bring SNAP to the Plymouth Farmers' Market, which is held every Thursday afternoon during the summer and early fall. In a 17th century setting at Plimoth Plantation, clients swipe their SNAP cards at the market tent for tokens to spend on produce from thirteen local growers.
Privately funded support groups are also working with local farmers. My Brothers' Keeper is one example. This Christian ministry has offered a helping hand to people in need for almost 25 years. It provides free weekly food deliveries in unmarked vans to 75 elderly and disabled residents in Brockton and Easton. Last summer their food-to-go program added produce grown on a farm at Stonehill College in Easton. Farm manager Bridget Meigs supervises three employees and a changing crew of student volunteers; in 2011 they harvested 12,000 pounds of organic produce on a one and a half acre plot.
Some neighborhoods served by My Brothers' Keeper are food deserts, with small mom and pop groceries but no nearby source of fresh vegetables. For example, the 1380 Main Street apartments in Brockton provide housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities that make it difficult for them to get around. Yet the nearest supermarket is two bus rides away.
Bridget welcomes the opportunity to provide greens like kale and broccoli. She supplies recipes and information sheets along with the fresh bounty.
"We've had a great reaction," says Beth Sheehan, Food Assistance Manager at My Brothers' Keeper. "Corn is a big favorite."
For South Shore residents who must choose between food, fuel, and other necessities every month, the Greater Plymouth Food Warehouse offers Healthy Harvest program. Begun in 2008, Healthy Harvest is a collaboration between the South Shore Community Action Council and local farmers. Growers like Colchester Neighborhood Farm in Plympton, Golden Rule Farm in Middleboro, and Hanson Farm in Bridgewater supply their produce to food pantries, soup kitchens, adult day programs, and other public service agencies. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are picked up right at the farms by SSCAC vans and delivered to thirty-two assistance organizations in Plymouth Country.
The Plymouth Food Warehouse is one of the largest agencies in this distribution chain. It serves 4000 people a month and last year it gave approximately 25,000 pounds of produce to Plymouth County residents who struggle with tight food budgets. Some clients use the food in creative ways. Seniors in Duxbury canned some of what they received and even made pickles.
The movement to bring fresh, locally grown food to bare cupboards is a win-win situation for farmers and consumers, says Beth Thompson, Food Resources Manager for SSCAC.
"The farmers have always given us a very good price on their produce for a number of reasons. They like the idea of getting food to folks who might otherwise not be able to afford fresh locally grown produce." She explains that the growers don't have the expense of getting their produce to markets, and people in need enhance their diets with fare that is not typically stocked on food pantry shelves.
Despite its benefits for local farmers and consumers, the Healthy Harvest budget varies from season to season. The program is funded through private grants from businesses and foundations. "It's a struggle," says Beth.
But at the end of the growing season, Healthy Harvest reaps the thanks of grateful assistance directors throughout Plymouth County. One of them is Mary Willis, the director of the Pembroke Council on Aging, who wrote, "Thank you for including us. Our elders were delighted to be able to receive all these delicious fresh vegetables right from the farm."
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