Catonsville farmers markets work to reach out to low income shoppers

Most Wednesdays, Kejuana Walton is at the Catonsville farmers market on Edmondson Avenue, trying to keep the “University of Maryland Extension” sign from blowing off a poster board covered in healthy recipes. She hands out colorful brochures and teaches the weekly market’s customers about fruits and vegetables that are in season and how to store them.

Managers and vendors at each of Catonsville’s two seasonal farmers markets are working to broaden their reach by encouraging customers to make local food a regular part of their grocery routine. Reaching low-income residents is a particular challenge -- but one that some market vendors say is worth the effort.

 Several groups hope to help families with limited budgets learn to make healthier choices that they can afford. Walton’s education initiative, “Market to Mealtime,” sets up booths at markets around the state to help those using food assistance programs build skills and habits for healthy eating.

“It is challenging for those on a limited income to make sure they include fruits and vegetables in their daily diets,” said Lynn Rubin, outreach coordinator for the Market to Mealtime program. “Our goal is to provide them simple ways to include these foods in their daily life.” She said families can struggle to access healthy food due to price, limited transportation and a lack of knowledge about what options are available and what benefits they can use in places like farmers markets.

Demand for assistance in one government food subsidy program that works with farm markets in Maryland has tripled in five years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 25-year-old farm market assistance program, which provides financial supplements for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, reports that 269 farmers in Maryland served nearly 16,000 people receiving WIC benefits in 2012. By 2016, nearly 51,000 people were served and 394 farmers had signed on to participate in the program, according to the USDA. There are currently 455 WIC participants in Catonsville’s 21228 ZIP code, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

The Maryland Department of Human Services said its Catonsville district office, which also serves the Arbutus area, is providing food supplement assistance to 11,598 people this year. About 70,000 people live in the area the office serves, according to the Census Bureau. A family of four in Maryland has to have an income of less than $2,633 per month, or around $31,500 per year, to qualify for food stamps.

“When we're talking about healthy food, a lot of times when you are on a limited budget, your options become unhealthy choices,” said Danielle Hogan, of the United Way of Central Maryland, which issued a report in 2014 noting that some families that don’t qualify for food stamps are making just enough to get by and cannot afford healthier food.

For a family of four, the organization said the “survival budget,” which includes necessities like housing, food, taxes, transportation and medical care, is $68,000 per year. About a third of Catonsville families were within that threshold, either in poverty or one unexpected expense away from it, the report said.

Walton said farmers markets benefit low-income shoppers because the food is fresher and they can talk to the farmers who grew it.

Market managers at the Wednesday and the Sunday markets in Catonsville, however, said they face obstacles in reaching out to these communities.

The Wednesday market takes Food Supplement Program cards, also called SNAP or food stamps, and Farmers Market Nutrition Program checks, which are given to people on WIC and senior food assistance programs. The market takes food assistance checks at a separate booth, handing out tokens for customers to spend at the vendors. They also participate in a program, called “Maryland Market Money” that doubles the first $5 of benefits people spend; for instance, someone using $10 in food stamps would get an extra $5 to spend at the market, bringing their total benefits to $15.

Market manager Cindy Yingling said that by the beginning of September, the market had between 175 and 200 WIC customers and 25 regular FSP customers.

“It’s a lot of paperwork,” Yingling said. “Each market needs a champion of the program.” She said that to be certified, farmers or markets have to provide the government with a continuous stream of data.

Teal Cary, who runs the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce’s Sunday farmers market on Mellor Avenue, said the market does not have the staff to be certified to accept food supplement programs. Instead, they leave it up to individual farmers, and do not keep track of how many vendors accept them.

Some farmers at the Sunday market accept WIC checks. Kim Gough, of Green Bird Farms, said she especially likes taking the senior supplement checks, because she “can tell it makes a difference.”

Ashley Hood, who sells organic produce for Wild Peace Farms, said that the northern Baltimore County farm takes WIC checks. They hope to accept SNAP benefits eventually; fewer vendors accept SNAP individually because the program requires a special card reader.

Despite local demand, Yingling said that from a pure profit perspective, accepting food supplements is not worth the time it takes for farmers market vendors. She said she does the paperwork not for the market not for the money, but because it is the right thing to do.

“It’s something I feel is good for the community and the future mothers,” she said. “I think it’s a good program … I’m hoping I’m helping the mothers and seniors and lower income [people], I’m hoping they’re benefiting.”

Even when benefits are accepted, as they are at each of Catonsville’s farmers markets, Rubin of the University of Maryland Extension, a program within the College of Agriculture that provides informal education across the state, said people with lower incomes face other obstacles to reaching the markets, such as opening hours.

“If you work and you can’t make it to the community market on weekdays, it precludes you from shopping there,” Rubin said.

The Wednesday market is open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., limiting customers to those who do not work regular business hours. For this reason, vendors said the Wednesday market attracts mostly seniors, students and parents with young children.

Another barrier, Rubin said, is getting the word out that the markets accept benefits, a challenge that Yingling said the Wednesday market faces.

But one of the barriers Rubin said her program is working on, that of education, is also one that vendors say farmers markets in Catonsville are well-equipped to overcome.

“What’s great about all our vendors is that they’re very knowledgable about what they produce,” Cary said of the Sunday market, which Market to Mealtime does not have a booth at this year. “They also offer a lot of recipe ideas and healthy eating ideas. I see a lot of chatting going back and forth.”

Gough’s customers at the Sunday market ask her questions about the produce frequently, and she doles out advice as she works. She told one customer to blanch green beans before eating them, and advised another not to eat the leaves on the rhubarb she was buying.“They’ll make you very ill,” she warned.

Yingling said she makes an effort to talk to her customers at the Wednesday market and encourages groups like Market to Mealtime to do cooking demonstrations and offer recipes.

“There needs to be a lot more education,” she said. “We’re getting farther and farther away from families that knew how to cook and prepare the meal every night.” She said the rise in families who have pizza and fast-food for dinner is “unfortunate,” saying the educational programs help show people that cooking from scratch is not only healthier, but can be easy, too.

At the ATM booth one Wednesday, a man arrived at the central booth at the Wednesday market 10 minutes before closing time. Kate Warner, of Kite Hill Farm, took the blue food supplement check he handed her, exchanging it for tokens as she asked, “How are you today?”

“I’m late,” he said, slightly out of breath. “But I’m glad I got here.”

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