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Farmers markets important food source during pandemic | COMMENTARY

A vendor adds more long cayenne peppers to the boxes on his table at the Waverly Farmers' Market. Next to the cayenne on the right are lanterns, serranos and habaneros.
A vendor adds more long cayenne peppers to the boxes on his table at the Waverly Farmers' Market. Next to the cayenne on the right are lanterns, serranos and habaneros. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

This week, farmers markets throughout Maryland will offer shoppers the best of spring’s bounty, including fresh spinach, eggs, spring onions and strawberries. Farmers markets have been deemed an essential service because they provide vital nourishment to Marylanders.

Food insecurity, already an enormous challenge before the pandemic when it directly affected 1 in 9 Marylanders, has increased dramatically. As hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, record numbers of families are already turning to area food banks, schools and nonprofits hoping to keep food on their tables. The pandemic has also magnified structural inequalities in Maryland (and nationally), with the most economically vulnerable hit hardest with the loss of work, income, health insurance and access to healthy food. At the same time, some of our local farmers, who have lost significant revenue because of the shuttering of restaurants and schools, wonder how they will survive in this season of uncertainty.

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In a very short time span, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our vulnerabilities and our strengths as a state. Maryland has taken on a leading role in the country, adopting preventive measures to keep our state’s residents safe and healthy. And as the national food chain falters, we see how crucial our local food system is, as farmers find new ways to get their food directly to consumers.

Maryland has a proud history as an innovator in making locally grown food available to some of its most food-insecure residents. The very first market in the country to double the value of federal nutrition benefits was Crossroads Farmers Market in Silver Spring. This innovative idea in 2007 has become a national model today, replicated throughout the country as a way to improve food access and health to those most in need and to strengthen local foodways.

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Through the Maryland Market Money program, farmers markets across the state supplement and leverage federal nutrition benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, providing a dollar-for-dollar match for purchases made using these federal benefits at farmers markets.

The Maryland Market Money program is a win-win: It fights hunger and also invests directly in farmers, strengthening the local food system and making farmers markets economically viable in food deserts. Program data demonstrate that every incentive dollar spent at a Maryland farmers market leads to $1.30 in federal benefits spending at the market, resulting in $2.30 for local farmers and putting that much more fresh, healthy food on the table of hungry families.

I was heartbroken to learn recently that a great partner in improving the local food system and the organization that administered Maryland Market Money statewide, Maryland Farmers Market Association (MDFMA), announced its closure. Just last year, MDFMA expanded the program to 36 farmers markets in 11 counties enabling food-insecure Marylanders to spend $455,000 in Maryland Market Money and federal benefits directly with local farmers on nutrient-dense market foods. The closure couldn’t happen at a worse time, but I am hopeful that its decadelong efforts to build the infrastructure of markets will prevail and the Maryland Market Money program will continue.

The good news is that the Farms and Families Fund Act, which I sponsored last year, mandates funds for a grant program administered through the Maryland Department of Agriculture for farmers markets incentive programs such as Maryland Market Money. Before the pandemic, funding was already set to be released this July, during the peak of Maryland’s growing season when Maryland farmers markets are thriving, filled with ripe tomatoes, sweet corn and tender green beans.

When MDA makes those funds available this year, as it is expected to do shortly, we will have taken a modest, but meaningful, step in support of our local food system on our long and uncertain path to economic recovery. Incentive programs like these represent the kind of multi-tasking investment we need to be making as we ensure vulnerable Marylanders’ basic needs are cared for, our farms and local food system thrive and our economy is strengthened.

State Del. Lorig Charkoudian (lorig.charkoudian@house.state.md.us) represents Maryland’s 20th legislative district.

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