May 24, 2018
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Farmers markets’ pilot program targets food assistance recipients

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Several farmers markets in Maine are involved in a pilot project that the organizers hope will help illustrate a link between more affordable fresh produce and healthier people.

The Wholesome Wave Foundation is instituting a “Veggie Prescription” program in Maine that allows doctors to give low-income patients farmers market vouchers so they can make more-healthful diet choices for less money. By studying the patients’ health over time, the foundation hopes its data will spur local, state and national governments — as well as health insurance companies — to consider ways to push people toward farm-fresh produce.

Wholesome Wave is also sponsoring a “Double Dollars” program that allows people receiving government food subsidies such as W.I.C. and food stamps to receive up to $10 a week in matching funds when they visit their local farmers market. That program is already operational at more than 160 farmers markets in 19 states, according to Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave’s president and CEO.

“Wherever we’ve gone and doubled those benefits, the programs have been wildly successful,” said Nischan. “There are people who don’t have the same access to healthy foods that others do.”

Now that the foundation has established the attractiveness of providing subsidies for farmers markets, Nischan said the second phase of his organization’s research is to prove that providing cheaper fresh produce can eventually improve a person’s health. That will be accomplished through the Veggie Prescription program, and the results will be used to sway governments to allocate resources to expand the consumption of fresh produce.

Sarah Smith, who runs the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market on Saturdays from May through October, said the programs answer a complaint she hears too often: that fresh food is too expensive for low-income families. More than half of Somerset County residents qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance programs, said Smith.

Under the Double Dollars program, people who receive government subsidies for food can redeem their vouchers at the farmers market for double their value up to $10 a week.

“That’s up to $40 a month in free food,” said Smith. “Good food is a right, not a privilege.”

Under the Veggie Prescription program, certain doctors can provide vouchers to patients who can purchase at least one serving of fruits or vegetables a day through the farmers market season.

Both programs begin at the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market on June 19. Other farmers markets in Portland, Lewiston, Kennebunk and a consortium of markets Down East also are participating.

The programs are being launched in Skowhegan in collaboration with Redington Fairview General Hospital, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and the Wholesome Wave Foundation. The Wholesome Wave Foundation, based in Connecticut, is a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater access to fresh foods through various programs.

The Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, founded in 1997, was one of the first in Maine to accept public benefit food stamp cards and W.I.C. vouchers, according to Smith. Since then, the use of public assistance money at the market has continued to grow. With many people expected to take advantage of the Double Dollars program, Smith said a welcome booth would be set up to help people shop.

“A lot of people are not familiar with farmers markets,” she said. “We want people to feel welcome. It’s a place for the consumer to rediscover the time-honored relationship between food grower and food consumer. Local food not only tastes better, but it’s more nutritious.”

Karen Voci, executive director of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, said the organization is proud to support a program that promotes healthful living.

“Fresher, local food means healthier kids, so Harvard Pilgrim is pleased to support the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market’s efforts to make sure all families can purchase the best of Maine’s seasonal fruits and vegetables,” said Voci in a press release.

Nischan said the Veggie Prescription program is being offered on a limited scope, but if it’s successful, it will spread quickly in coming years.

The Skowhegan Farmers’ Market is held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the site of the old county jail on High Street, which is just off Water Street in the downtown. The market is scheduled to run through October. In addition to some 20 vendors peddling everything from vegetables to seafood, the market usually includes free live music and demonstrations of cooking, gardening and composting.

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