Fresh Vegetables for Everyone

Aug 6, 2009

[BITE: Sound of shoppers] Each Thursday for three weeks farmers from across the region convened on the front lawn of the Columbus Public Health building. Medical Director of Columbus Public Health Dr. LeMaile-Williams anticipates a big turn out.

"Last year we had over 11,000 people visit our farmers markets over the three Thursdays. This year we anticipate even more," says LeMaile-Williams.

It appears she's right. Last Thursday's market was packed.

But what isn't so clear is whether the big turn-out is reason to celebrate. In the center of the market is a line of people about 0.25 mile long. The line - mostly women and children - is waiting for $15 of food aid benefits.

Shannon asked her last name not be used.

"So you come out and you get these coupons and you have like $15 to spend and you can get all types of nutritious stuff. It just helps people feed their children healthy," says Shannon.

The Women with Infants and Children program - or WIC - is a program from the Department of Agriculture. The organization began handing out the benefit almost 20 years ago. It wanted to encourage its clients to purchase fresh produce from Farmers Markets.

But Dr. LeMaile-Williams says WIC realized many of its clients were not actually redeeming the vouchers.

"When surveyed it was largely because they didn't know where to access a Farmer's Market. So we felt that by hosting a farmer's market right here on our grounds would hopefully increase participation," says LeMaile-Williams.

It seems to have worked. In its first edition of the market five years ago, the voucher redemption rate doubled.

The purpose of this farmers market goes beyond providing locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Michael Jones, from the Greener Grocer, says purchasing any type of produce could be difficult for those without easy access to transportation.

"In many of the inner city urban areas there is no grocery store that is accessible to the population there. They may have access to a corner store but that store is likely to carry beer, wine, cigarettes but very little in the way of healthy food," says Jones.

A few hours after the Market's opening, the line of people waiting for the $15 food aid benefit is almost gone. But it's no comfort to Jones. He expects the line of people waiting for the food aid benefit to during next Thursday's farmer's market. "Just imagine. People waiting in line mile long simply to get $15 of benefits to purchase healthy food. That should be a wake up call to our community," says Jones.

And Jones is awake. Because the farmers markets are seasonal - taking place only during the summer. So the Greener Grocer and Columbus Public health looked for ways to provide similar shopping opportunities year-round.

"So this idea of the veggie van was born," says Jones.

The Veggie Van is a travelling farmer's stand. It makes two or three stops a day in different parts of the city to sell locally grown produce. But Jones says sales at the Veggie Van have been slow.

"There's also an issue of resources. If you don't have money you can't buy fresh fruits and vegetables," says Jones.

So while the veggie van ran year round since last fall, it's not clear if the initiative will continue through the winter.

The Veggie Van's stops include St. Stephen's Community House, the Jewish Community Center and the South Side Settlement House.