Farmers seek to expand markets, and improve diets (Times Argus)

By Mel Huff

RANDOLPH Center - According to the recently released Vermonter Poll, conducted annually by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies, 30 percent of Vermonters cannot afford to buy nutritious food. It's not so much that they prefer Ramen noodles, white bread and macaroni and cheese, it's that for the price of the ingredients for a fresh salad, they can buy several starchy meals.

From special coupons to cut-rate prices for produce, farmers and federal and state agencies are trying to change that. Another change that may help is expanding the number of farmers' markets that can take electronic EBT cards, which replaced food stamps.

More than two dozen members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont packed a classroom at Vermont Technical College Sunday to discuss how they can take part in getting nutritious locally grown food to people who need it. The workshop on Developing Food Security in Vermont, part of NOFA's 26th annual winter conference, provided information about programs that link senior citizens and families on limited incomes with CSAs and farmers' markets.

The discussion also generated ideas on how to overcome one of the greatest nutritional barriers faced by low-income Vermonters: transportation.

Two federal programs provide seniors with access to fresh, locally-grown food. The Senior Farm Share Program funds weekly shares of fruits and vegetables through local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms). The 10 shares entitle the shareholder to $50 worth of produce over the summer. (The shares used to be worth $100; the amount was cut in half.)

The Farm Share program is available to residents of senior housing projects whose coordinators have paired their sites with a CSA. Typically, the coordinators pick up the vegetables or have them delivered to the site's community kitchen. NOFA will help sites find a farm. Last year there were about 500 Senior Farm Share members around the state.

The Farm-to-Family Farmers' Market program provides members with a booklet of 10 coupons worth $3 each that can be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers' markets. More than 50 of Vermont's 60 farmers' markets now accept the coupons. The booklets are distributed by Community Action agencies, which begin taking applications in June.

Both programs, which are funded by the United States Department of Agriculture Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, provide the shares and coupons at no cost to senior citizens with incomes under 185 percent of the poverty level. Seniors can choose one program or the other; they can't participate in both.

In addition to the farmers' market program for seniors, the Vermont Farm-to-Family program makes $30 coupon books for fresh produce available to those enrolled in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program and to other non-elderly families. For 2008, the income limits are $1,604 a month for a single person, $2,159 for a couple, and $3,269 for a family of four. WIC participants must apply through that program; others apply through their local Community Action agency.

Because one of the goals of these federally funded programs is to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, the shares and coupons cannot be used to purchase other locally raised farm products, like meat.

Farmers who sell fresh produce grown in Vermont or within 25 miles of the border can sign up to take part in the Farm-to-Family program at a farmers' market. They will receive face value for the coupons they accept. In 2008, the program will distribute more than $150,000 in coupons in Vermont.

In addition to these federal program, NOFA sponsors its own Vermont Farm Share Program, which subsidizes CSA shares for low-income families. Typically, NOFA and the farm each pay 25 percent of the cost of a share, and the family pays 50 percent.

The program is funded by an annual "Share the Harvest" event, which takes place in early October. Some 75 restaurants donate a percentage of their sales on the day of the event to fund the farm shares. The event raises as much as $12,000, said Jean Hamilton, a Vista volunteer working for NOFA.

Families at 185 percent of the federal poverty level that want to join a CSA can apply directly to NOFA. If they know the farm they want to join, NOFA will contact it for them. If they don't have a preference, NOFA will find a local farm they can join. In some cases, Hamilton said, CSAs that started out in the Vermont Farm Share Program now raise the money for the subsidies from their other shareholders.

A key changes may have the potential not only to increase the access of low-income families to locally grown food but also to increase the income of local farmers: Equipping farmers' markets with the technology to process Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. When EBT cards replaced paper Food Stamps, families could no longer use their benefits at farmers' markets because the markets lacked the $1,000 scanners for reading the cards.

Just under $5 million in Food Stamps are spent each month in Vermont, some of which could be going to local farmers, but at present only the farmers' markets in Bellows Falls, Winooski and Brattleboro are able to scan EBTs. Funding has been made available for six more sites, three in the northern part of the state and three in the southern part, for the coming season. NOFA is writing the criteria, and the farmers' markets will be able to apply for the money.

Heather Bagley told the workshop participants about a model that has the potential of solving the problem of transportation. A group in the Upper Valley called Willing Hands collects food that would otherwise go to waste and gets it to people who need it. Using two paid drivers, they pick up food at no charge in their delivery van, drive to 45 social service organizations and distribute it at no charge. They pick the food up from co-ops, farmers and local farmers' markets and distribute it to low-income housing sites, senior centers and the Veterans Administration hospital. The project is funded by grants and donations.

Greg Cox, a West Rutland farmer, said, "That's what farmers need. So many have extra produce. On a Saturday's farmers' market, there's a lot of stuff that's going to go home. An organization like that where you have a central group of farmers that have the food, it's already picked, it's already washed, you don't want to take it home. But if you have the connective tissue in place, farmers would gladly, gladly (contribute the food)."