systemic obstacles, numerous groups are working to bring
locally grown, healthy food into the region’s urban communities
By Amy Halloran
perhaps, that the market was not tragically depressed like
the city. A new feature in this, its 11th season, makes
the market resemble the city more: a machine that accepts
credit, debit and EBT cards, or food stamps. The typical
farmers-market customer is stereotyped as an overinformed
food snob with extra money for fancy goods. As interest
in eating locally grows more popular, however, there are
lots of average kinds of customers.
The local-foods movement is gaining momentum, as is evident
in the growing number of farmers markets in the Capital
Region. Weekly markets in Brunswick, Cohoes, Colonie and
Watervliet, to name a few, offer produce and locally produced
goods through the growing season; markets in Troy and Schenectady,
and stocking practices at a few retail outlets, like the
Honest Weight Food Coop, extend the local-food shopping
season to the full year.
Exactly how is the movement to eat local trickling down
to lower-income populations? Given economic facts and challenged
urban infrastructures, the question may seem absurd. Poverty
rates in Albany, Schenectady and Troy are upwards of 20
percent, and each city has multiple “food deserts,” where
residents lack access to standard grocery stores and are
more likely to rely on fast-food restaurants and convenience
stores. Grocery shopping at corner stores is expensive,
and selection is limited. First Lady Michelle Obama targeted
this shortage of options as problematic when declaring her
war on the childhood obesity this spring. One of the aims
of the multi-agency program called Move It! is getting better,
fresher choices into the country’s many food deserts.
Farmers markets are already a part of the solution. As some
folks dive fully into sourcing foods from a tight geographic
radius, the less-well-heeled are also putting energy into
making similar choices. Although percentages of people of
any economic means buying local are hard to establish, certain
dollars spent at farmers markets leave a trail. Looking
at food-stamp dollars spent at farmers markets makes it
easy to read the vote low-income people are casting for
past year it was $883,000, which jumped from $278,000 in
2008, and about $90,000 in 2007. Although we won’t have
figures from 2010 until the end of the calendar year, I
would anticipate that we will not grow a [mere] few percent,”
says Jonathon Thomson, economic development specialist at
the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets,
predicting that the amount could eclipse $1 million this
year. The total number of food stamps spent in New York
State in 2009 was $4.3 billion, so there’s plenty of room
The system for food stamps transitioned to paperless Electronic
Benefit Transfers (EBT) in New York in 2000, and farmers
were left out of the food-stamp loop for a while. The Department
of Agriculture and Markets began a trial program in 2002,
offering wireless machines to individual farmers. The program
has since morphed into a market-based one, and this year
190 markets have machines that allow food stamp users to
swipe their cards at market in return for wooden coins.
Vendors accept these tokens and are reimbursed by the market
Ten farmers markets in Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady
counties now accept EBT. (These machines also allow shoppers
to use credit or debit cards.) One of them is the Schenectady
Greenmarket, a Sunday market that began in November 2008.
In January of this year, vendors offered a discount to draw
shoppers using food stamps. The Schenectady market’s Community
Access committee is active in its outreach efforts and sent
notices to food-stamp providers earlier this season about
the program that allowed people to purchase starts for vegetable
plants with their cards. Since the market moved outdoors
the first Sunday in May, they have averaged $190 a week
in EBT sales.
is allowing us to purchase local foods. We bought milk and
eggs, raw honey, fruit, vegetables, bread,” says a customer,
asking not to be identified, of having access to EBT at
a farmers market. The woman was shopping for the week with
her husband and their two sons. The family sought a farmers
market where they could use their benefits, and shopped
here last year as well.
In other words, this family found the market because they
were savvy about local foods. The market didn’t find them.
And yet, markets are strategically placed in areas where
people don’t have access to any fresh foods.
hardest thing is to get a market going in a low-income neighborhood
because some of the products are higher-end,” says Tom Gallagher,
agriculture issue leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension
in Albany County. Gallagher specializes in agricultural
economic development, helping new farms assess properties
to see what might grow. He also helps develop farmers markets
so farmers have a place to sell.
When Gallagher was helping to start the farmers market at
Capital District Physicians Helath Plan in Albany, the fledgling
market’s board chose not to have an EBT machine—which requires
staffing to operate—onsite. The lunchtime market is not
near a residential neighborhood and primarily serves workers
in office buildings, employees who presumably earn enough
that they don’t use food stamps.
The Saturday market established on Central Avenue in Albany,
however, in the parking lot for WAMC’s the Linda, is meant
to draw on foot traffic from the neighborhood. The Central
Avenue BID is temporarily running this market, and reports
that the market usually sees about five EBT transactions
per week. The BID does outreach at church and neighborhood
meetings, and places ads on TV and posters at bus stops
to try to make sure people know about the market.
stamps are not the only currency that the lower-income population
can use to purchase locally sourced foods. The New York
State Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) distributed
checks in June to families enrolled in WIC and also through
the Senior Nutrition Programs. People use these checks for
fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.
people think farmers markets are expensive, but they actually
are not, especially at this time of year,” says Debbie Forester
at Schenectady’s Greenmarket.
FMNP checks can allow people to comparison shop and see
that for themselves, but unfortunately, the redemption rate
is poor. Only 50 percent of the coupons were redeemed last
year in Albany County. Numbers were better for the senior
citizens, however, who redeemed closer to 85 percent. Why
there is such a difference in rates is a guessing game.
Perhaps seniors know more about farmers markets in general,
some of them having grown up knowing them firsthand, before
supermarkets assumed control of the food landscape.
Last year, a new program began distributing vegetable and
fruit checks to WIC families as part of a federal directive.
The WIC ration, when established in the 1970s, was protein-heavy,
and in 2007 the USDA mandated a revision of programs at
the state level. Monthly rations of fresh, frozen or canned
vegetables and fruits are now included in WIC, and this
new program hopes to direct WIC money to New York state
always have two goals in mind,” says Thomson of Agriculture
and Markets. “One is to provide access to people that wouldn’t
have access to this fresh, locally grown food, but the other
part is to be able to support our local farmers—and that’s
a message that has also gotten a good deal of emphasis from
other agencies. The Health Department, Office of Temporary
and Disability Assistance, or food stamps, [and the] Office
for the Aging, they’re all very much on board with those
goals,” notes Thomson, underscoring that the idea of living
locally has teeth on many levels.
straight to farmers markets is not the only way to get local
food on your plate. There are a lot of efforts in the region
funneling locally grown produce to consumers for free. Farmers
donate leftover produce at the end of the Delmar and Troy
Waterfront farmers markets through a program begun in 2004
by Capital District Community Gardens (CDCG) called Squash
Hunger. Squash Hunger has drop-off sites at a couple of
Hannaford supermarkets and at Honest Weight. Produce is
collected by volunteers and distributed to a variety of
food pantries, soup kitchens, and other outlets that get
food to people in need. Home gardeners give regularly to
this program as well, and CDCG estimates it has gathered
more than 70,000 pounds of produce in the six years the
program has been running. Last year the program expanded
to include gleaning from local farms, which upped the amount
The Schenectady Greenmarket collects weekly from its vendors,
and different groups pick up the donations on a rotating
basis. Volunteer Dinnie Shanley has been gathering boxes
of produce from vendors since the Troy Waterfront Farmers
Market’s early days, and bringing the food to pantries.
Farmers are very generous with their surplus, happy to see
the food they’ve put so much effort into growing reach a
mouth rather than a compost pile.
Generosity also plays a role at CSAs. Community Supported
Agriculture is a practice where people buy into the farming
enterprise with the farmer, purchasing a share of the farm’s
future yields up front. The idea is to ease the farmer’s
spring investments in equipment, seeds and labor, and share
the farmer’s potential bounty and losses. While paying a
chunk of money up front is hard to manage on a limited income,
some CSA farms have payment plans, and also offer subsidized
or charity shares. When purchasing their shares, members
often have the option to donate money to a fund to subsidize
other shares. Denison Farms, which has been running a CSA
from Schaghticoke since 2004, taking over Janet Britt’s
long- standing CSA, reports that since the economic downturn,
those donations have increased.
When people miss their CSA pickup, other members generally
get the extra produce to food pantries or to Squash Hunger,
which takes care of the transfer.
The Regional Food Bank has a farm to grow food for its needs
and runs a CSA to help pay for the farm. Pauline Williman
established the Patroon Land Trust in 1997 to keep family
farmlands in agricultural use while producing food for people
in need and offering opportunities for youth to gain farm
experiences. Williman and volunteers grew vegetables on
the land in Knox for the Food Bank from 2001 to 2005, and
in 2006, the Regional Food Bank began to run the farm.
year we expect our yield will be over 100,000 lbs of produce,
and it will all be distributed by the food bank to the kitchens
and other agencies,” says Mark Quandt, director of the Regional
The farm manager, Mark Weinheimer, works year-round on the
project, which cultivates almost 13 of the farm’s 162 acres.
He is assisted by four full-time workers during the growing
The farm is planted with Swiss chard, kale, collards and
lettuces, winter squash and melons. Onions and potatoes,
peppers and tomatoes are growing, too. Weinheimer is transitioning
to organic practices, finding it necessary to amend the
soil after many years of heavy use. A raised bed machine,
which props beds up above significant drainage ditches,
is a boon to this year’s efforts, as the soil is very clay-like
The farm continues to be a real community project, with
groups from churches and schools, as well as families and
individuals, coming out to work the fields on a regular
basis. Bales of hay donated by a local farmer sit on the
land waiting to be used as mulch or dug into the ground
for fortification. Foundations and individuals have donated
money for equipment and improvements, such as a new barn.
The Eastern Contractors Association is donating all of the
labor necessary to construct the barn, the skeleton framework
of which stands sentinel over machinery, starts and rows
of growing plants.
In Coxsackie, a food pantry that purchases much of its stock
from the Regional Food Bank also sources from the surrounding
community. Charlotte Carter has been involved with the Community
Food Pantry for almost 15 years and now directs it. The
pantry serves roughly 60 families per month, or around 200
people, and Carter is creative about integrating the farmers
in the area into the process of feeding those people.
have some people who donate on the understanding that the
funds that they donate will be part of the local-food system.
That supports the farmer. It’s kind of a collaborative thing,”
says Carter, who buys a portion of the pantry’s meat from
Pathfinder Farms at a discounted rate. She says the local
orchard is very generous, as are hunters and sportsman clubs,
who donate venison to the Regional Food Bank, which stores
the meat. When the pantry needs it, they pay the small handling
fee the food bank charges.
Fresh vegetables come to the pantry through gardeners and
CSA shares. Carter has a plan to connect clients directly
with farmers. Using some of the money that’s designated
for local foods, she will invite a farmer to set up at the
pantry, which operates for a single hour twice a week, and
could let people choose what vegetables they wanted, and
I would reimburse the producer. This is just an idea we’re
beginning to work on, but then you have the connection with
the person. Someone can tell you what to do with those greens,”
of mouth is the best advertisement for any phenomenon, as
EJ Krans, project director of Capital District Community
Garden’s Veggie Mobile is discovering. The vegetable-oil-powered,
brightly painted box truck stops at 23 sites a week, offering
fruits and vegetables for sale at cost. Customers walk into
the back of the truck and pick out what they’d like to buy,
and pay for their food with FMNP checks, EBT cards, credit
or debit cards and plain old cash. The staff takes the trouble
to source locally as much as possible, and labels those
origins on the truck. These labels quickly became a talking
point with customers.
talk about it a lot, and just by talking about it, it becomes
an interest,” says Krans. “People come to expect to know
where it’s from. The more we talk about it, the more people
People also ask questions about organics, the term having
filtered into the national food vocabulary so deeply that
even Wal-Mart is in on the game. Now that the term local
is circulating on the Veggie Mobile, people ask about that,
too. The difference is visual and obvious, especially when
people see fresh greens.
Talking has served the sourcing end of the equation, as
well. Last year, for instance, Krans and other workers kept
asking the distributors they buy from at the Menands Market—where
they also shop directly from producers—for locally grown
cherries. A distributor was able to get some from Buffalo,
and this year, the distributors had local cherries. Supply
can meet demand.
can never have local lemons, limes and bananas, but when
we come into peak season, which we are now, we get up to
70 percent locally grown,” says Krans.
alone won’t make a perfect food system. However, there is
plenty of action happening around here toward change. Strategically
located farmers markets, roving vegetable vans and charitable
efforts are all funneling great local fruits and vegetables
to lots of people. Educational gardening initiatives geared
at youth like Roots & Wisdom in Schenectady, Youth Organics
(YO!) in Albany, and the Youth Powered Farm run by CDCG
in Troy, are another piece of the puzzle, as are backyard
and community gardeners.
Nutritional trends come and go. Remember the no-carb craze?
And Olestra? These dietary “solutions” didn’t last. Local
food, which is targeting something broader than our waistlines
or the lining of our arteries—planetary health as well as
personal health—just might have some staying power.