Virginia Burns, 77, came to the Columbia Farmers’ Market with her sister Rebecca Davis on a hot and windy Wednesday recently. She was looking for vegetables, especially tomatoes. She likes the green ones best because she says they taste great fried.
The problem is that Burn’s dogs also like green tomatoes. She wanted to replenish her stash because they had devoured the last ones she had.
Burns is among an unknown number of Missouri seniors attending the state Market nutrition program for seniors, which began in 2019 with a grant from the US Department of Agriculture. The program aims to give low-income seniors better access to healthy fruits and vegetables.
“I love it. Everything is fresh, straight off the vines,” Burns said, later adding that “the program is perfect and the prices are reasonable.”
The effort got off to a slow start as it was launched just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers are trying to restart and include more seniors as the number of farmers eligible to participate has increased to over 200. Participating growers must complete training on how the program works and how to redeem coupons issued to seniors.
Taylor Tuttle, program manager for the Missouri Grown Program, commended the effort.
“This is a really great program to help people who need that extra support and it’s a great way to give them an edge so they can go to the farmers market and buy fresh fruit and vegetables,” Tuttle said.
The USDA provided $206,000 for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program in 2019, and the grant is renewable each year. It offers low-income seniors up to 10 coupons worth $5 each. The vouchers can be exchanged for groceries at farmers’ markets or street stalls. The program is limited to 46 counties that struggle most with poverty, as organizers want to make the most of limited funding. Seniors apply through regional agencies that serve the aging population.
In Columbia, seniors who receive the coupons and are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will also receive a $35 consideration at the Columbia Farmers Market. The market’s executive director, Corrina Smith, said the number of people taking advantage of the opportunity has increased.
Jim Thies, owner of Columbia’s Veggie Patch, said educating people about the program has been a hindrance.
“It just takes time to spread the word of mouth and provide the senior group with the coupons and familiarize them with going to the market,” Thies said.
Tuttle has partnered with local agencies to advertise in newspapers and on the radio. Each agency gets a media kit with graphics and basic information and some advertising money. Tuttle also sees social media as a possibility.
“We really need to use all the different media platforms to really share more about the program,” she said.
Seniors who participate in the program can use coupons to purchase fruits, vegetables, honey, and cooking herbs. The program excludes produce grown outside of Missouri, as well as items such as dried fruits or vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, and cheese.
Burns encourages seniors to participate in the program because they can get groceries that are often healthier than what they can find at a grocery store.
“Think about what you do with your money,” Burns said.
Tuttle said the program is also great for local farmers because “it provides a new revenue stream and an opportunity to get their produce into the hands of more Missourians.”
Thies has owned and operated the Veggie Patch, a small family grocery business, since 1995. He estimates that there are 15 to 20 vendors in Colombia that accept vouchers.
“It’s probably one of the few fresh food gateways with all the food deserts throughout Missouri that don’t have full-service grocery stores,” he said.
Thies said participating stalls at the market are displaying signs saying they accept the vouchers. Nevertheless, participation remains inconsistent.
“Not many of the regular market visitors use the program,” said Thies. “It seems like the people using the coupons are less frequent market visitors than the average market person, and some of them come to the market just because they have these coupons to redeem there.”
He’s noticed that seniors tend to band together and buy things with plans to freeze or preserve them.
“Sometimes we end up with 25 vouchers; In other weeks we don’t have any,” said Thies.
The program runs from June 1st to October 31st, vouchers are available until September 30th.
Farmers interested in the program can email the Missouri Department of Agriculture [email protected] or call 573-751-8596 to schedule a virtual training session. Once the training is complete, they receive signs for their stalls and stamps to track the coupons.