Growing a Healthier Community
Over 23 million Americans live in areas where there is no neighborhood grocery store. Despite the abundance of agricultural production in the Michiana region, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, many residents shop at convenience stores, where processed foods are plentiful and fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce. A $400,000 grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation is intended to change that.
Under the direction of The Conservation Fund, a not-for-profit dedicated to land protection and sustainable development, Benton Harbor children and their families who are vulnerable to food insecurity (along with families in other food insecure cities across the state) are the beneficiaries of a three-year program to make healthy food more accessible. The program supports small farmers with micro- loans and provides qualifying farmers markets, like the Benton Harbor market, with grants to build capacity to increase fresh and healthy food access.
Incentives to Shop at the Farmers Market
The first step of the plan was equipping the farmers market to accept EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, which allow shoppers to use their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars at the farmers market. Next, through the support of the Double Up Food Bucks program funded by the Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit working to build a just and sustainable food system, the Benton Harbor Farmers Market matches every $2 paid with an EBT card, up to $20 per day.
In addition, Lighthouse Ministries provides market vouchers to children who participate in their summer camp.
Although this is the first year for the voucher program in Benton Harbor, similar programs have been successful.
“There was a program last year, based out of Three Rivers,” says Magsino. “They gave out vouchers and 100% of those vouchers were redeemed.”
Addressing the Needs of the Community
Pastor Lisa Gorman, the head of Lighthouse Ministries, describes a critical need for the program in Benton Harbor.
“Half my kids think Pop-Tarts and Hot Pockets are nutritious,” Gorman says of the more than 50 children in Lighthouse Ministries’ summer camp.
And Gorman explains that, for some of the children, the two meals that Lighthouse provides may be all the food they have all day.
Recognizing that children’s needs were not being met in her community, Gorman contacted the Benton Harbor Health Department, which organizes the farmers market, to coordinate the use of funding for the kids voucher program.
Accessibility is More than Availability
Making the farmers market more affordable, however, is only the beginning.
“Food access is so much more than having it in your neighborhood. You need to be able to afford it, but then you need to know what to do with the food,” says Nicki Britten, director of community health and planning for the health department.
To address this problem, Britten has teamed up with Michigan State Extension to offer tastings and cooking demonstrations at the market. Pastor Gorman supplements these by offering her own classes in the church’s commercial kitchen. Eventually, she would like to offer canning classes so that parents can continue to have healthy options for their families in winter.
Small Growers, Big Impact
“These initiatives have already benefited the area’s small farms, which sometimes face their own food insecurity issues,” says Britten.
Small growers in Southwest Michigan are vulnerable to poor weather conditions like this past winter’s sub-zero temperatures. Britten observes that fewer growers have made it to market this year due to the late start to the growing season.
Farmer Bill Cole, 77, of Watervliet, Michigan, says he suffered losses in his fruit orchards. However, Cole is optimistic about the success of farmers markets. He has seen a resurgence in interest in locally produced food.
“People are wanting more fresh food instead of things that might have been on the shelves for a week,” says Cole.
Britten agrees, noting that the market’s customer base has increased as money for food stays in the community.
A Stronger, Healthier Community
Those involved in the program hope it will be the beginning of a stronger, healthier community and agree that The Conservation Fund has jump-started positive change in the area.
“Our children are our ‘right now,’” says Pastor Gorman. “What we do to them today will affect how they see themselves in the future and how they will take care of their community.”
Benton Harbor Farmers Market
Pipestone and Main St. Benton Harbor, MI
Wednesdays,10am–3pm (through October 8)
Fair Food Network
205 E. Washington St. Ann Arbor, MI
275 Pipestone St. Benton Harbor, MI