May 22, 2010

Fresh program to help needy

By Doug Harlow
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Families eligible for the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program will soon be able to redeem benefit vouchers for double their value at the Skowhegan Farmers' Market.

Grants from three private foundations will pay for the program.

The market's partnership with Redington Fairview General Hospital, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, and the Wholesome Wave Foundation, aims to create better access to fresh, unprocessed foods in rural Somerset County, market manager Sarah Smith of Grasslands Farms said.

The market was awarded $10,500 to pay for a "Double Dollars" public assistance program. The money will be used in $10 increments until it is all spent, Smith said.

"Through the Double Dollars program, people who previously could not afford to purchase fresh foods can now redeem WIC benefit vouchers for double their value, allowing them to buy more, better food locally," Smith said. "What that money will be used for is to capture some of the food stamp money that is coming into the state of Maine every month -- there is $29 million a month coming into the state of Maine for food stamp benefits."

Smith said up until now most of that money has been going to major supermarkets. She said with the Double Dollars program, income-eligible families will discover the taste and the value of locally grown food and keep the money in the local economy.

Amber Lambke, who is developing the Somerset Grist Mill at the old county jail, said 51 percent of Somerset County residents qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance programs. Somerset historically is one of the poorest counties in Maine.

Skowhegan was one of the first farmers' markets in Maine to purchase electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, technology for food stamps and to require that all market vendors accept EBT and WIC benefit vouchers, Lambke said.

Aligned with a Federal Department of Agriculture initiative to increase voucher use at farmers' markets, Skowhegan is watching electronic voucher sales continue to grow, Lambke said.

The Skowhegan Farmers' Market also will become the first community in Maine to offer a pilot "Veggie Prescription Program" with support from Wholesome Wave, Skowhegan Family Medicine and area physicians, Smith said.

Local doctors can now offer their patients "Veggie Prescription" vouchers worth $5 and redeemable at the market, she said.

Groundwork for these new programs has been accomplished by the grassroots organizing efforts of the 20-member farmers' market, along with community volunteers, Smith said. The market was founded in 1997 by one organic farmer guided by the principle that "good food is a right, not a privilege," she said.

"In order to change our food system, one in three people need to be growing food, not one in a thousand," Smith said. "If people are concerned with where their food comes from, they should not only support their local farmers, but they should also learn to grow their own food."

The Skowhegan Farmers' Market is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the former Somerset County jail in downtown Skowhegan. The old jail is to be transformed into a grist mill, artisan bread bakery and retail center.

Doug Harlow -- 474-9534

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