CISA’s 2016 Resolution: Local Food for All

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 9th, 2016, by Philip Korman and Margaret Christie

By February, many of us have already forgotten our New Year’s resolutions, especially in today’s world of ever-scrolling Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s hard to get traction to make big change. At CISA, our 2016 resolution is to ensure more people have more access to local food, a campaign we are calling “Local Food for All.”

With the help of our community, partners and farmers, we expect this effort to lead to permanent change.

CISA was founded on the premise that the livelihood of local family farms rests on the investment, connection and commitment of the whole community. Yet many people are unable to put locally grown food on their tables.

In 2004, we began the Senior FarmShare Program, for low-income seniors in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties. Seniors become shareholders at local farms and receive weekly shares of produce, either on-farm or through deliveries at local senior centers or Councils on Aging.

Senior FarmShare provides critical food assistance to a vulnerable population, offers farmers a reliable source of income and builds ties between farmers, seniors and the community organizations that host the distributions. Thanks to state funding and generous donations from individuals, we reached 400 seniors last summer.

Yet so much more needs to be done.

For many years, another strategy for connecting farms and low-income residents has been slowly turning into a reality. It rests on the ideal that a farmers’ market is a community asset and needs to be accessible to everyone. For a while, technological barriers made it difficult to accept SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, but the state Department of Agricultural Resources has made equipment available to many markets. In 2007, there were only nine farmers’ markets in Massachusetts that accepted SNAP. By 2014, that number had jumped to 140.

Farmers’ markets took the next step, raising money from the community to match SNAP purchases. From pie sales to Harvest Suppers to donation jars, markets have worked to make sure that SNAP recipients could stretch their dollars at the market.

So why have these efforts been so important?

First, there are over 140,000 people, many of them children, receiving SNAP benefits in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley. Farmers demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that their harvest reaches all of their neighbors through many mechanisms, including generous donations to food pantries and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

At the same time, they have to make a living. Increasing the purchasing power of people on SNAP enables these households to pay the price that farmers need to charge. The tax dollars that we contribute to the SNAP program do double duty, providing food to the hungry and investing money in our local food economy.

Second, USDA-funded research conducted in Hampden County showed that providing families on SNAP with incentives to buy produce led to an increase in vegetable and fruit consumption. At a time when diet-related diseases are an enormous problem, SNAP matching programs help the most vulnerable among us eat more healthy and fresh food.

Third, increasing SNAP spending at farmers’ markets keeps that money circulating in our local economy, benefiting not only farmers but all of us. While the amount of SNAP dollars spent at farmers’ markets has increased every year, it is still only $360,000 of the $1 billion total SNAP spending in Massachusetts.

Just as farmers’ markets can benefit an entire region, communities can work together to make sure that markets serve all residents. The challenge is bigger than one farmer, one market, or one community. It demands action on the local, state, and national level.

Last summer, CISA launched SNAP & Save, a program in partnership with Healthy Hampshire and 12 farmers’ markets. Using funding from the Kendall Foundation and the community, we matched up to $5 in SNAP purchases through the summer and winter. It’s a first step, and more needs to be done.

Acting on our New Year’s resolution of everyone having access to locally grown food, this winter we launched “‘Local Food for All.” Our goal is to raise $100,000 by April, allowing us to expand Senior FarmShare to 450 low-income elders and SNAP & Save to cover all farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley with a match of up to $10 in SNAP purchases.

We are confident that many of us in the Valley hunger for connection and community and want to welcome all to the communal table, no matter the challenges. Our farmers are ready and able to grow local food for all: Let’s help them meet that goal!

Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in Deerfield. Margaret Christie is CISA’s special projects director.