Many farmers markets program vouchers not redeemed
As farmers markets begin opening this week, the neediest of state residents aren't always getting their fair share of the local, healthy bounty, according to state records.
Only 53 percent of the women in the state Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program who accepted $20 worth of the state vouchers in 2013 actually used them to buy locally grown fresh vegetables at participating farm markets, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Conversely, about 87 percent of low-income senior citizens, who were offered the vouchers through senior centers, redeemed their $20 vouchers at local farm markets.
The state can't satisfy the demand for the supplemental food vouchers from low-income seniors, according to Jay Howes, deputy secretary of the state Agriculture Department. About 300,000 low-income seniors and 160,000 WIC-eligible families redeem the vouchers at farm markets throughout the state.
“The seniors look forward to it,” he said. “It's a popular program, and it's a program that works.”
The Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging starts getting phone calls from seniors wanting the vouchers as early as January, according to its administrator, Ray DuCoeur.
The county usually receives about 6,000 sets of vouchers, which it distributes to its 13 senior centers.
Many of the seniors grew up with vegetable gardens and they know the value of farmers markets, DuCoeur said.
“Who doesn't like fresh vegetables?” he asked.
However, demand slacks at senior centers that aren't close to farm markets registered with the state to accept the vouchers, he said.
There are about 187 farm markets and more than 800 farm stands registered with the Farmers Market Nutrition programs statewide.
Location of farm markets seems to be an issue with low-income families and those on WIC generally.
“There's a sizable demand from the seniors, but WIC is a tougher situation,” Howes said.
While the Pennsylvania Department of Health encourages its local agency staff to promote the use of the vouchers to WIC participants, there are challenges, according to Wes Culp, Health Department deputy press secretary.
“We have identified some barriers to participation which include transportation and the availability of farmers and farmers markets in local communities,” he said.
Limited hours, nutritional education
Young poor people can be tricky to serve because of access to a farm market with limited hours and their lack of nutritional education, according to Karen Snair, executive director of the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches in Harrison.
The association provides free fresh vegetables to 450 to 500 low-income families a month in its Produce for People program, working with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
“I had one woman tell me she could buy a bag of potato chips and make it last for two days,” Snair said. “She was someone on food stamps. She was not pencil thin.”
It's expensive to eat healthy, she said, and low-income people are looking to stretch their dollars.
Young people don't always know what kale is and how to cook it, said Snair.
“It comes down to education,” she said.
“It is a different generation,” Snair said. “A lot of kids eat dinner out of a microwave. That family meal time isn't as popular as it once was.”
Another organization, Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that tackles hunger and poverty issues, launched its Fresh Access program last year.
The program allows residents with food stamps to get tokens at select farm markets in Pittsburgh to buy fresh vegetables there.
“We're making it possible for everyone to shop at the farmers markets and are also putting more money into the farmers' pockets,” said Emily Schmidlapp, fresh access coordinator for Just Harvest.
The organization serves as the middle man — accepting residents' state-issued Access cards at the farm market and converting those into tokens that the farmers can accept and redeem in a week or so.
“It seems crazy when people on food stamps are not shopping where the freshest, healthiest food is,” she said. “We want to break down those barriers.”
There are substantial barriers, Schmidlapp said.
“I think time is an issue,” she said. “There are many low-income people who are working low-income jobs, taking care of kids. And going to a farmers market that is open four hours a week isn't an option.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.