Feature Article - February 2017
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Teaching Healthy Eating

Connecting Communities to Healthier Lifestyles

By Dave Ramont

Chelsea Roseberry is the Farmers Market coordinator for the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia, and said that they offer SNAP at Market programs at four of their 11 market locations—the ones deemed to be the most in need.

"We match SNAP purchases at market up to $20 to be used on additional fruits and vegetables, thanks to generous donations from Inova (a nonprofit health organization) and funding from the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant."

Roseberry added that the Virginia Farmers Market Association is working to expand SNAP access to other Virginia farmers markets. "Incentive programs could provide a big boost to struggling markets, and at our four markets alone brought in an additional $20,000 in income for 2016. These programs are growing rapidly nationwide and have demonstrated much success in providing healthy fresh produce to low-income families, while providing additional income to small farmers."

Roseberry also explained how they partner with the Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide healthy cooking demonstrations at SNAP markets, to teach patrons to use fresh ingredients or try new produce items they haven't before. "This is especially true for SNAP shoppers who may not be accustomed to using fresh ingredients, or may not be used to using produce native to this region."

They show customers how to use the produce, hand out recipes and offer tips on how to save at the market. All recipes feed a family of four for less than $5. Roseberry said it's their initiative to knock down barriers to SNAP recipients shopping at the markets, since "food literacy" is a key obstacle, along with transportation and cost. "The demonstrations have been well-received by market shoppers. I often see customers picking up the recipe card and purchasing all the ingredients to go home and make the recipe," she said.

Roseberry also sits on the Fairfax Food Council (FFC), which was born from a need to address health issues plaguing low-income communities. They have three separate groups working on issues including food access, creating more community gardens, and increasing food literacy, with the latter group working to develop healthy-eating meal preparation educational resources to help families make nutrition choices. They developed a survey and collected data from clients at a local food pantry, which is being analyzed so the information can be used to develop nutrition materials.

Terri Siggins, project coordinator for the FFC, described one initiative—the Healthy Habit bag program—which can be adopted by local food pantries or organizations. Bags include two recipes, shopping list, and nutritional information focused on a specific topic, such as low sodium or whole grains. Food pantries can then partner with faith-based or other local organizations to adopt bags. People who sign up to adopt a bag get the recipes, shopping list and nutritional information—eventually filling the bag with items on the list. The bags—including items to make the two recipes—are delivered to the food pantry and then distributed.

"It's a win-win for everyone involved. The person donating the food is getting nutrition information and recipes as well as the food pantry recipient," she said.

Let It Grow

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) is a nonprofit membership organization that supports community gardening in urban and rural communities by facilitating the formation and expansion of state and regional community gardening networks. William Maynard is a member and past president of ACGA, and works for the City of Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department as the community garden program coordinator.

He explained the ways they assist communities in launching and sustaining their programs. "ACGA can mentor a program from afar with information and direction, and if needed we can discuss with the gardeners getting one of our national board members to come to their city for training."

Sometimes they offer gardening classes, or help install gardens at schools. "ACGA has given grants to schools in the past. I've designed and built a number of school gardens over the years—it's a natural tie-in with community gardens," Maynard said.

At James O. Breen Community Park in St. Charles, Ill., the park district rents 233 garden plots. In 2012, the St. Charles Park District partnered with the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB) to create a system for gardeners to donate excess produce, where people can leave their surplus at a drop-off area on the garden site. In addition, plots that go unrented are planted and maintained by volunteers, with all produce donated to NIFB, who work with soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, and youth and senior feeding programs.

In 2016, more than 4,200 pounds of produce were donated to NIFB, according to Pam Otto, who works for the park district. She added that the NIFB dietician stressed how important it was to get fresh, locally grown foods into their distribution chain since so many donations consist of processed foods. Also, warehouse staff related how food pantry recipients didn't always recognize the importance of fresh foods, or didn't know what to do with foods like squash. "Ideally we'll be able to work with the dietician, and perhaps their marketing people, to create some educational materials and maybe even classes on how to create tasty, healthful meals using fresh produce," Otto said.

AmpleHarvest.org provides another way for gardeners to donate their surplus. You can go to the website, put in your zip code and distance you're willing to travel, and all the registered pantries in that range will pop up—almost 8,000 food pantries across 50 states.