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Can farmer's markets close the local food gap

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/17/12 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Food, Local food system

Is it counter-intuitive that suburbanites on food stamps will want to shop at a farmer's market? Or city residents that want to feed their family nutritiously? Local food advocates believe it's possible – with targeted efforts – to expand food assistance programs at area farmer's markets that meet the rising tide of new applicants from historically middle and upper income suburbs in Northeast Ohio.

The state has an incentive program-a $15 match for fruit and veggies purchased at 17 area farmer's markets including Shaker Square, Coit Road, Tremont and Lakewood.

It's easy to sign up, says Barb Riley at Cuyahoga County's Women, Infants and Children Program. "We go to markets and issue coupons to use that day."

But only $20,000 of the $3 million for food assistance in the county was used at farmer's markets in 2011. Is it realistic to expect the number to rise, even when the incentive is $15 for local, farm fresh food versus a $5 coupon for fresh, frozen or canned veggies? That $5 coupon redemption rate jumped from 56% to 72% last year, indicating to the likes of Riley that not enough people know that most farmer's markets accept EBT, WIC and the Direction Card.

"We saw a decrease in farmer's market coupons being reimbursed last year," Riley said.

In fact, only 20% of those eligible in Cuyahoga County are even signed up for food assistance. The Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition met last week to discuss expanding access to local food. A good discussion ensued with food pantry and community groups pledging to help one another connect their customers to the farmer's market program.

The Coalition studied coupon use and found that some area farmer's markets, like Tremont, saw a 98% increase. Introducing signage, like, "Grandma kept it fresh, so can you" helps, said Tremont's Kristen Trolio.

Kevin Sheuring at Coit Road Farmer's Market (which celebrates its 80th anniversary) is witnessing fewer young folks buying veggies to take home to their grandmother for homecooking. "We need to do something about that. Fast." Rates of diabetes and hypertension are disproportionately higher in neighborhoods with low access to fresh food, like the East Cleveland area around Coit.

Jayme at the Cleveland Food Bank pledged staff support for spreading the word of farmer's markets through county assistance programs like the "211" line and the Ohio Benefit Bank.

Some wondered if public transit or vanpools could boost local food access. A CMHA staffer said public housing residents have free access to vans that can take them to farmer's markets.

Others want to see more staff for organizing cooking classes at markets. "I do a lot of cooking demos," Sheuring said. "Lining up the cooks and recipes isn't hard. Coordinating the whole thing on a regular basis is the real work."

A food blogger offered to print recipes for distribution. LJ, a program officer for Neighborhood Connections, mentioned it supports cooking programs for youth, and that a shared (farmer's market) staffer for cooking classes might win their support.

"Food is about habit and relationships," said Kathleen Augustine at Cuyahoga County Family Services. "I like my grandma's recipe because it reminds me of this…"

Will cooking classes at farmer's markets change people's eating habits?

"A lot of (nutrition) programs are about relationships," said LJ.

Also at issue: an inefficient, paper-only system for coupons means long lines at farmer's markets. Riley said the state promised that EBT was going electronic years ago but hasn't delivered.

Meanwhile, Ohio lawmakers made cuts to food assistance – 1,000 fewer families in Cuyahoga County will receive coupon books this year. At the same time, expanding local, fresh food assistance was in a bill introduced by Cleveland Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. And eight trusts including Gund Foundation are supporting a match at Northeast Ohio farmer's markets.

"We need to answer, 'does the farmer's market experience make them want to come back?' said Sue Flocke at Case's Prevention Research Center. She led the Food Policy Coalition's initial study of food assistance at farmer's markets. She would like to continue looking at what people buy and how they cook. "Where do we focus our energy? What are the questions we need to ask to propel nutrition?"

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