BRATTLEBORO—A belief persists that locally grown fresh produce is out of the price range of most Vermonters.
So is it possible for lower-income people — those traditionally underserved by farmers’ markets — to source affordable, fresh food?
Of the 822 Windham County residents who participated in a recent health survey conducted by local hospitals, just over 35 percent of them “felt they couldn’t afford healthy foods.”
And a 2011 study by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) notes the persistent reputation that “local foods at farmers’ markets are exponentially more expensive than their conventional counterparts at more traditional grocery stores.”
But that belief is anecdotal. While it does require some digging, literally and figuratively, lower-income locals can take advantage of a variety of resources to access fresh fruits and vegetables, and sometimes fresh bread, eggs, and meats, too.
Subsidized community-supported agriculture
NOFA-VT’s Farm Share Program “assists limited-income Vermonters in obtaining farm fresh foods,” according to the program’s website.
The program assists more than 1,400 individuals and families participating in community-supported agriculture programs where, for a flat fee, a person or family gets a regular share of the farm’s produce.
CSAs often require payment in advance, which puts it out of the reach of those with a tight budget and a lower income. For participants in the Farm Share Program, NOFA covers a portion of the share.
Some farms also allow the participant to pay their non-subsidized portion on a payment plan, or with their 3SquaresVT EBT card. The federally-funded program is nationally known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and is colloquially known as “food stamps.”
In Windham County, the participating farms are Guilford’s Circle Mountain Farm, Dwight Miller & Son Orchards and Walker Farm in East Dummerston, Brattleboro’s Full Plate Farm and Wild Carrot Farm, Hermit Thrush Homestead in Halifax, New Leaf CSA in Dummerston, and Old Athens Farm in Putney.
Justin Nye, of Circle Mountain Farm, said he and partner Amy Frost offer their customers the Farm Share Program, 3SquaresVT, and payment plans to cover the cost of a CSA share because “we will do what it takes to get good food to people,” regardless of their incomes.
Another resource for affordable fresh food: the Food Connects Neighborhood Market, modeled on a combination of a CSA and a farmers’ market.
Circle Mountain Farm, along with Amazing Planet! Farm in Williamsville, Up the Road Farm in Guilford, Full Plate Farm, and New Leaf CSA all participate in this program.
The Neighborhood Market’s mission is to expand access to healthy, affordable, local food for all people, though the primary focus is serving people of low income.
Every Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m., from June 30 through Sept. 15, on the front lawn of Brattleboro’s Green Street School, the Neighborhood Market offers participants fresh produce in the “free-choice CSA” model.
“A free-choice CSA means that members pick their own items from what is available each week, rather than having a box already packed for them,” said Food Connects’ Helen Rortvedt.
Rortvedt explained the pricing structure of the market, a break-even operation.
“The Neighborhood Market share prices are based upon an income-dependent sliding scale. Our members who qualify for 3SquaresVT benefits receive the lowest price (exactly what we pay to the farmers), and those in higher income tiers pay a little more per item to subsidize the costs associated with running the market.”
She added that participants can pay weekly, monthly, or by the season, “whichever system works best for each family.”
The program came about after Food Connects’ parent organization, Post Oil Solutions, organized a series of focus groups to “better understand what the barriers to accessing local food seemed to be in the Brattleboro community,” said Rortvedt.
Particularly for lower-income residents, some of those barriers were cost (both perceived and actual) and difficulties getting to farmers’ markets and farm stands without a car.
And cultural barriers.
Rortvedt explained that “many low-income community members don’t choose to shop at farmers’ markets or farm stands or the Co-op because they are not accustomed to, or they don’t feel comfortable in those environments.”
“We developed the Neighborhood Market as a means to address those three common barriers to accessing local food,” she said.
Enrollment is open now for the 2015 season. To learn more and sign up, Rortvedt recommends visiting www.foodconnects.org/the-neighborhood-market.html.
Free food at farmers’ markets
A few other programs exist to put free fresh food from farmers’ markets in the shopping baskets of low-income shoppers.
3SquaresVT gives recipients a certain monthly dollar amount, based on their income and household size, which they can use to purchase food from farmers’ markets and farm stands (and grocery stores, too).
The program is geared toward lower-income, disabled, and elderly people. To apply, call 800-479-6151, fill out an application online at dcf.vermont.gov/mybenefits/apply_for_benefits, or visit Windham County’s Economic Services district office at 232 Main St., Second Floor, in Brattleboro or the Springfield State Office Building at 100 Mineral St., Suite 201, in Springfield.
According to data provided by the education and advocacy organization Hunger Free VT, approximately 14 percent of Vermont residents receive 3SquaresVT food benefits.
On a more local level, “as of August 2014, 7,291 Windham County residents participated in 3SquaresVT, including 2,476 children,” said Drake Turner, the organization’s adult nutrition initiatives manager.
“While we don’t have a final list of farmers’ markets accepting EBT for summer 2015, last year six farmers’ markets in Windham County accepted EBT benefits in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Londonderry, Putney, and Townshend,” Turner said.
Beginning this summer, recipients of 3SquaresVT can participate in an expanded program offering greater access to fresh produce at area farmers’ markets.
The program formerly known as “Harvest Health,” has been discontinued, to be replaced by an expanded plan.
Harvest Health had allowed a 3SquaresVT participant to receive matching coupons or tokens to use only at farmers’ markets for any item allowed under 3SquaresVT guidelines, including fresh produce, dairy items, breads and grains, meats and eggs, and processed foods such as pickles.
The new program, stemming from a recent nationwide $31.5 million USDA grant to support programs that help SNAP participants increase their purchase of fruits and vegetables, is still being developed.
According to Turner, the program’s working name is “Double Your Money.”
Meanwhile, Hunger Free Vermont is working with NOFA-VT to establish the program at farmers’ markets, and get the word out to ensure more lower-income people know about and use the benefits.
Turner said the new plan has received more funding, thus not only ensuring enough matching funds are available during the summer market months, but — unlike the Harvest Health program — allowing the matching program to extend into the state’s winter farmers’ markets as well.
“This one is similar to Harvest Health,” said Susan Dunning of the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market, “but this program only allows the recipient to buy fresh fruit and vegetables."
Turner suggests this strategy to participants: Use your 3SquaresVT benefits for bread and other items such as dairy, eggs, and meats, and use the matching funds for fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Many EBT users are unaware that they can stretch their dollars further at the farmers’ market,” said Bellows Falls Farmers’ Market Manager Daniel Hartigan.
Another program for low-income Vermonters is Farm To Family.
The program is available for families who qualify for WIC (the federal supplemental food program for women, infants, and children), for some households with “someone aged 60 or older,” or for “[o]ther individuals or families with household incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty limit,” according to information from the Vermont Agency of Human Services.
For a family of four in 2015, that income qualification is $44,862.50 per year.
Participants can get $30 in coupons, valid only at farmers’ markets, as well as tips about shopping at farmers’ markets and selecting fresh produce.
The application process begins in late June, and distribution is on a first-come, first-served basis until all the coupons are gone. To apply, call Southeast Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) at 800-464-9951.
Free food elsewhere
Food pantries, food shelves, and soup kitchens or community meals provide other points of access for low-income Vermonters to find fresh food. While some of the pantries and shelves offer canned goods and other shelf-stable staples, some also offer fresh produce, meat, and eggs.
A list, compiled by Hunger Free Vermont and the Hunger Council of Windham County, can be found on the United Way of Windham County’s website. A similar list also appears twice monthly in The Commons.
In addition, the Vermont Foodbank distributes directly at Putney Meadows on the fourth Thursday of each month, from 9 to 9:45 a.m., in the housing complex’s Common Room.
“That provides fresh produce and healthy snacks. It is a great supplement for people,” Field said.
At the April distribution, visitors were encouraged by volunteers to take as much as they could use of 10-pound bags of potatoes, two-pound bags of onions, big bags of carrots and beets, and cabbages larger than the average person’s head.
Grow your own
Gardens provide seasonal fresh food, and for those who live in spaces without access to suitable land, community gardens provide the opportunity to exchange time and labor for low-cost bounty.
Most community gardens in Windham County are connected to a school, and are for school use only, but a few have popped up elsewhere.
Lucy Tell, who works with the Brattleboro Housing Authority as part of the federal Housing and Urban Development Family Self-Sufficiency Program, said Post Oil Solutions helped the Ledgewood Heights housing development install “a plot and a few raised beds.”
She also said Moore Court, Melrose Terrace, and Hayes Court have small gardens for the people who live there.
For the general public, community garden space is limited. Post Oil Solutions has a few initiatives and steering committees in the works to try to develop more opportunities throughout the county.
Bellows Falls currently has one public community garden, near the ski hill next to the town’s recreation center, behind the Blake Street town garage.
Maryann McArdle, manager of the garden, invites people to contact her (email@example.com), “although we may already be booked up for this year.”
Dig your own
Vermont Foodbank’s Gleaning Program is a type of “food rescue” that enables the hunger-relief nonprofit to “provide delicious, healthy food to our customers who might not otherwise have access to local produce” by “harvesting and gathering excess produce or ‘seconds’ from farms,” according to its website.
“The produce we harvest is often top quality. Other times, the produce might have small blemishes or an irregular shape,” the website says.
There are no gleaning events scheduled yet for this year’s harvest, but interested parties can contact program director Michelle Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-477-4125.
Foraging is another resource for fresh food. By venturing into the yard, out into fields, streambeds, and forests, one can gather herbs, mushrooms, and wild onions each spring.
For mushrooms, it’s best to consult with an expert mycologically-aware forager, but herbs and wild onions are much easier to identify.
Trudy Crites of Brattleboro has published two books to aid the novice forager: Eat Your Weeds and From Mycophobia to Mycophagia: Overcoming Your Fear of Mushrooms.
Crites’ books are for sale at a few area stores, including Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro, the Guilford Country Store, and the Putney General Store. Copies are also available for lending at Brattleboro’s Brooks Memorial Library.