Health district teams with USDA researcher to get fresh produce to farmers' market customers

Health district teams with USDA researcher to get fresh produce to farmers' market customers

CHAMPAIGN – People using food coupons to get fresh produce at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's farmers' market will get an added benefit, beginning next month: An extra bag of vegetables.

The health district is teaming up with Marty Williams, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist, and his Three Sisters Garden along South First Street. The produce from the Three Sisters Garden will be distributed to public health district clients as an incentive for them to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.

If someone redeems food coupons from the Women, Infants & Children, or WIC, program at the farmers' market, or uses a Link card to purchase produce, "They'll get a half-pound of edamame, or a pound of green beans, or four ears of corn. Whatever's available," said Brandon Meline, director of maternal and child health management for the health district.

"People will be getting twice as much for their money, or more variety or more nutritious foods," he said.

And, he added, it helps support the local economy by supporting local food growers.

The partnership came about after Meline learned of Williams' Three Sisters Garden through a story in The News-Gazette and contacted him. Williams and his co-workers planted vegetables this summer on land surrounding their research plots, with the intent of giving the vegetables to a local foodbank, soup kitchen or other charitable organization that could pass them on to people in need.

Meline and the health district have been trying to find ways to encourage more of their clients to buy fresh produce. The health district receives about $40,000 in farmers' market vouchers for the WIC program, but only about half that amount gets redeemed, Meline said.

The health district started a farmers' market at its site two years ago, to provide easier access to fruits and vegetables for their clients.

"That's helped a little bit, but we're trying to look at other incentives for people to come out and access locally grown food," Meline said.

The health district's farmers' market accepts Link cards – an electronic benefits card that includes food coupons – as do Urbana's Market at the Square and the Farmer's Market on Historic North First Street.

"There's been a big push at the federal level to increase food stamp and cash sales at farmers' markets and get the benefits used," Meline said. "From a public health nutrition perspective, we'd rather see those entitlement dollars spent on healthy, nutrient-dense foods than foods from convenience stores."

It's still a little uncertain when the health district will begin distributing vegetables from the Three Sisters Garden. "It depends on when Marty has things ready to come out of the fields and what's available week to week," Meline said.

But he's aiming at July 20 to have a big push for people to come get their WIC farmers' market vouchers at the health district. That's a Tuesday, the day of the week on which its farmers' market is held, so clients can use their vouchers to get produce at the same visit. He's hoping that day will also be the kickoff for handing out the additional vegetables from the Three Sisters Garden.

The health district also has garden plots, and some of the vegetables they grow there will also be given to clients to supplement what they buy at the farmers' market.

"Especially with Mrs. Obama's campaign about community gardens, there's a lot – a lot – of momentum going right now with equal access to healthy foods," Meline said. "We hope that momentum continues."

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