Monday, July 25, 2011

Need help buying food? Ask me.

Saturday marked my first visit to the Ward 8 Farmers' Market, set up next to the impressive ARC facility on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast DC. I'd been hearing about the market for a number of months from my friend Michael (the market's manager) and the chance to do some SNAP outreach with my friend Crissa (of DC Hunger Solutions) presented me with the perfect opportunity to check out this seasonal market not so very far from the Southern Avenue stop near the end of the green line metro.

SNAP -- for those new to food policy or this blog -- stands for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which in DC can be in the form of EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) vouchers, and/or Senior FMNP (Farmers' Market Nutrition Program) coupons. In short: food stamps. Thanks to a group called Wholesome Wave, the Ward 8 market, like a growing number of farmers' markets in the area -- including the Columbia Heights Community Market, the Crossroads market, and some of the FreshFarm markets -- offers Double Dollars. Most of these subsidized markets will double up to $5 or $10 (per shopper, per market) the amount of fresh, local food that low-income shoppers can purchase using EBT, WIC, or FMNP payment methods... but the Ward 8 Market is the first one I have ever been to that will double all of these without a limit on per-market usage. So someone with, say, $30 to spend can get $60 in fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in a single visit. (I can totally consume $60 in fresh produce in a week. So can a normal family of four.) Now that's pretty awesome.

[Actually, speaking of awesome, my favorite story about the Ward 8 market involves a local group of do-gooders who call themselves The Awesome Foundation: Having been chosen from among the inaugural pool of applicants for the first round of DC's Awesome Foundation grants, Michael told me of an afternoon a few months back when a woman handed him a paper bag full of cash -- $1,000, to be exact -- so that his fledgling market could offer free, snazzy canvas bags for first time market shoppers to tote their produce. True story. And much less shady than many of the recent goings on involving piles of cash and officials in this fair city of mine....]

While the Ward 8 Farmers' Market is not overly large -- two produce vendors, a potted plant seller, a guy selling fresh bread and frozen pastured meats -- it was well attended by a nice mix of loyal regulars and first timers who came by the information tent to pick up their double dollars. I had donned a bright green "Need help buying food? Ask me" t-shirt and as I worked alongside Crissa to hand out informational fliers and recipe cards, I quickly learned that most folks that I spoke with at the market who can receive food assistance benefits already know about and receive them. There were a few who asked for more information on behalf of friends or relatives who were new mothers or elderly, but most were pretty savvy. (I will say that it was a little unsettling to realize that these days I would actually qualify for food stamps myself. Eep.) It was a friendly group of neighborhood shoppers and farmers who, I must say, were pretty generous souls. I mean, how often does a complete stranger offer me some of his delectable fresh peaches from the market on the walk to the subway? (Okay, that sounds sketchy, but it totally wasn't!) I learned as much about the generosity of the human spirit as I did about food assistance programs that day.

I am not sure how typical Saturday's market day was -- the site was shared with an FCA Community Day -- but it was a pretty steady crowd and I saw lots of produce and vouchers exchanged. I have a hunch that Michael and his small cadre of local food producers will continue to contribute to building a happier, healthier community of local food shoppers out in Ward 8 for quite awhile.

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