Healthy Plate gives low-income buyers a place at the table

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - Portland shopper Kelsey Jones visits the Northwest Portland Farmers Market a day after moving to the city.From a fruit-infused bread pudding to a chocolate beet cake, Robert Adams likes to experiment in the kitchen.

The 47-year-old Adams, who is homeless, has volunteered at Sisters of the Road Cafe for two years. Whenever he can, Adams brings in hand-picked, local ingredients from a nearby farmers market — all made possible by a two-month-old initiative called the Healthy Plate Project.

In May, New Seasons Market donated $5,000 to Sisters of the Road, which connected low-income shoppers to fresh market food. The project was so popular it served 300 of their volunteers in eight weeks and the funds ran out.

“People of lower income, or houseless, don’t always get nutritious meals using their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card,” says Adams, who volunteers at Sisters of the Road from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. “(A) hot, nutritious meal every day, Monday through Friday, is how it should be.”

Healthy Plate is one of several initiatives across the United States that aim to make farmers market food affordable for all customers. The nationwide push is a sign that farmers markets are beginning to see the opportunity to make locally grown food accessible, says Trudy Toliver, executive director of the Portland Farmers Market and the Farmers Market Fund.

“It’s not so much of a ‘why now,’” Toliver says. “It’s a ‘finally.’”

Thousands in Oregon are making use of food assistance programs, such as SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In May, 161,947 people in Multnomah County and 792,075 in Oregon used SNAP, says Katie Furia, SNAP outreach manager at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Since 2004, all Portland farmers markets have accepted SNAP and also recognize other food assistance programs such as Women, Infants and Children and Senior Farm Direct Nutrition Program vouchers, which are both processed directly by farmers, Toliver says.

In addition, four of the eight Portland markets host the program Fresh Exchange, which provides SNAP recipients with a dollar per dollar spent on approved farmers market items up to $5 per visit, at the King, Buckman, Kenton and Northwest markets — that means spending $5 in SNAP money gets participants $10 to spend.

According to data from the Portland Farmers Market detailing SNAP use at all participating Fresh Exchange locations since each location started hosting the program, the Buckman market attracted the most SNAP shoppers last year, with 8 percent of total shoppers using SNAP. The Northwest market also attracted a high number of users, with 7 percent last year and nearly 11 percent in 2012.

At the King market, 5 percent of shoppers used SNAP last year. And at the Kenton market last year, just 4 percent of people used SNAP.

Overall, the Northwest, Buckman and King markets saw a dip in SNAP use this past year, which Toliver says could be due to a number of factors. Programs like SNAP, she says, typically have temporary users, making constant outreach necessary for the program to survive. In addition, Fresh Exchange has been forced to change its matching amount due to shifts in available funding, typically from donations and grants, unlike Seattle, which received $150,000 in city money in addition to donations for their similar program last year.

In 2010, Fresh Exchange started matching up to $10, later dropped to $5 that August, raised it to $7 in 2012, and has offered $5 since 2013.

Low-income shoppers may soon get another benefit. Toliver says the Farmers Market Fund, a charitable organization companion to the market, plans to launch grant proposals during the next six to nine months to add yet another program which would aim to raise awareness about healthy eating.

The program, she says, would potentially partner with local service agencies to provide vouchers in exchange for food and also incorporate healthy-eating workshops, similar to a program the Lloyd Farmers Market hosts. Toliver says she is confident they will get the funding.

“We’re going to make it happen,” she says. “Once it proves itself, it will be easy to fundraise.”

Farmer Ian Winters, of Winters Farms in Troutdale, estimates about a quarter to a third of his customers are using the food assistance programs.

He has seen the number of customers using food assistance grow since he started vending five years ago, which he’s glad for. “Nutrition is something that matters to everyone,” he says. “Whether they know it or not.”

Healthy Plate

Back at Sisters of the Road in Old Town, Healthy Plate — the two-month-old program that just ran out of funding — allowed Adams to purchase what he says was “better tasting than the stuff you get at supermarkets.”

And now, Sisters of the Road is looking for donations in hopes of making the program run year-round.

The project allowed volunteers at the Sisters of the Road Café to exchange their earned punch cards for tokens, which could be redeemed for up to $15 per day at all Portland farmers market locations.

Traditionally, the punch cards, worth $3 apiece, are earned by Sisters of the Road volunteers who help to maintain, clean and cook at the cafe and are redeemable for two meals and beverages at the location.

Volunteers say Healthy Plate was a way for lower-income shoppers — who normally have to purchase food with a longer shelf-life — get their hands on the fresh and nutritious products they need and deserve.

“People with food insecurity definitely need access to healthy food,” says Kris Soebroto, the café’s development co-manager. “That is everyone’s right.”

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