SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Dr. Michael Lambke hears the same thing over and over when he tells his chronically ill patients to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables: Healthful food costs too much.
“That’s one of the biggest standard obstructions I hear from my patients,” said Lambke, a family physician who spent Saturday morning at the Skowhegan Farmers Market. “When we’re working through the process, the chronic issue is cost.”
As of Saturday, though, area residents who receive food subsidies can double their value up to $10 every week at the Skowhegan Farmers Market. Any person or family who consumes that much healthful food for any length of time will reap the benefits in their health, said Lambke.
“I’m very excited to see this happening,” he said.
The program, funded by Redington-Fairview General Hospital, the national Wholesome Wave Foundation and the Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation, started this week. Lambke and others are also creating a “Veggie Prescription” program in which doctors give their patients farmers market vouchers.
Mike Vermette of The Highlands Farm in St. Albans keeps the books for the Skowhegan Farmers Market. He said the market accepted nearly $4,000 in food benefit vouchers last year, but he expects that number will seem paltry compared with this summer. In other areas of the country where similar programs have been attempted, public benefit spending has increased by as much as 800 percent, according to Vermette.
“That’s a big deal,” he said. “If it actually comes close to that, it means another $2,500 a year for each of our 20 vendors.”
In the first hour, five shoppers had already used the Double Dollars program and several more showed up throughout the morning, according to Kate Mantor, a nutrition project coordinator for the Healthy Maine Partnership.
“It looks like most people are doubling their strawberries so far,” she said. “This is a great program, and a lot of people around here are really excited about it.”
Wayne Bessette of Skowhegan, who was taking advantage of the Double Dollars program Saturday, said eating fresh produce began for him eight months ago when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Since then, he has lost more than 100 pounds and brought his average blood sugar level from spikes of more than 600 milligrams per deciliter to 86 mg/dL. A healthy blood sugar level is between 70 and 120 mg/dL.
Bessette attributes his progress largely to his new attitude about what he eats — much of which comes from the Skowhegan Farmers Market.
“This place has given me a better life and a healthier life,” he said. “It was a struggle, and I had to figure it out for myself. It’s not an overnight thing.”
William and Lisa Toles of Skowhegan also were using the Double Dollars program Saturday. In addition to helping improve their diet, they like the program because it funnels dollars to local farmers who transport their goods across town as opposed to around the world. And there’s the financial benefit.
“We’ll do anything to save a little bit of money right now,” said William Toles.
Ann Mefferd of One Drop Farm in Cornville said part of her mission as a farmers market vendor is teaching people not only the nutritional value of fresh food, but also how they can grow it on their own. That’s why she and others have created an on-site demonstration garden on the farmers market grounds, which is located behind the old county jail in downtown Skowhegan.
“We’re teaching people that there’s a way to bring healthier and more nutritional food into their homes,” said Mefferd, who said weekly programs in the demonstration garden, including some geared for children, begin June 26.
According to the Wholesome Wave Foundation, other Maine farmers markets participating in the Veggie Prescription and Double Dollars programs include the Lewiston Farmers Market, the Kennebunk Farmers Market, the Boyd Street and Washington Gardens farmers markets in Portland, and a consortium of farmers markets overseen by the Downeast Business Alliance.
For more information about the Skowhegan Farmers Market, go to www.skowheganfarmersmarket.com.