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A Bridge to Better Food:

Businesses, farm markets, agencies help families buy fresh, healthy fare

December 22, 2010 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Because Marvin’s Gardens accepts Bridge Cards, Marlene Machleit can buy fresh produce there for her children, providing them with better nutrition.

The air inside the Marvin’s Gardens farm market store, near Interlochen, offered blessed, skin-tingling coolness as young mother Marlene Machleit walked in from the steamy, August heat. Cool as a cucumber—just like those she pointed to in the market’s display case as she shopped.

“Those are a good deal,” she said, looking at the $3 price tag for a large bag. She was shopping with three of her four kids, and she let them weave their way through the produce displays to pick out colorful red peppers, juicy canteloupes, and sweet-tart blueberries. As they did, owner Marcia Blackford called out to them: “Hi, kids!”

Marlene has made it her job to find good deals. At the end of 2008 she and her husband watched local television news in a panic as the reporter announced that her husband’s auto parts manufacturing company in Traverse City was closing for good.

“He thought this was the job he was going to work at until he retired,” she said.

Now, that hope was gone. And the family was already living frugally in a modest modular home in Benzie County. Mr. Machleit’s former $20-an-hour job provided an annual income that, for a family with four children—ages 6, 10, 12 and 14—ranked above poverty level ($29,530 for a family of six) but was still low.  The Northwest Michigan Human Services Agency and Poverty Reduction Initiative calculates the basic cost of living in the Grand Traverse region as $43,080 for a family of four, and he was earning less than that for six.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Marlene said. “We were scared. Are we going to lose our house? Are we going to be able to make it?”

And, she wondered, how would they eat—and eat healthy?

The answer is twofold:

  • First, Ms. Machleit works hard tracking down newspaper and online store coupons and planning shopping trips so that she drives only once a week, to save on gasoline. Her regular stop for produce: nearby Marvin’s Gardens.
  • Second, communities must help families like hers gain access to the freshest produce—food harvested at its prime by local farmers.

In fact, communities are coming together over fresh food and struggling families. Efforts by business like Marvin’s Gardens and many non-profit agencies and organizations are clearing away obstacles that block lower-income families from eating locally grown food. Those organizations include community-run farmers markets, public health departments, food pantries, faith-based groups, human service agencies, and collaborative organizations like the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, a part of the regional Grand Vision initiative.


It’s in the Cards
Here’s an example: After Marlene’s husband lost her job, she learned she and her family qualified for something she never imagined she’d need—a Bridge Card, the modernized version of food stamps.

The card operates much like a debit or credit card—except that, until recently, she could not spend her allotted $200 a month in a farmers market. That’s because farmers markets didn’t have the equipment needed to run the credit card-like machines that accept them.

Fortunately, farmers Marvin and Marcia Blackford attended a Michigan Farmers Market Association workshop two years ago and learned how to operate those machines.

But while Marvin’s Garden accepts the card, not a single community farmers market in the Grand Traverse does. Two have completed the required federal paperwork, and a few more are studying the idea. So the Food & Farm Network, which is dedicated to helping local growers and food retailers build a regional food economy, is offering to help—sometimes in creative ways.

For example, the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, publisher of the annual Taste the Local Difference farm and food guide, will produce farmer “baseball cards” for farmers to give away to children at farmers markets. It’s a fun way for kids to become familiar with the markets—and the people who grow their food.

There’s more: Health departments, Head Start, and human services agencies will put up posters that let families know which markets accept the Bridge Card—and how to get those baseball cards.

“I think it is a great idea for families to be able to use their Bridge Cards to buy healthy food,” said Dawn McLaughlin, director of the Grand Traverse County Department of Human Services, which oversees the Bridge Card program in her county. “This is a win for families and for farmers.”

It Should Be a SNAP
It is also a win for the local economy because it brings an entirely new market to the region—local families spending the card’s federal dollars directly into the community, instead of in chain stores that channel the dollars to growers in California or other countries.

That adds up to a lot of dollars kept in this part of the state.

In the six-county Grand Vision region, for example, more than 31,000 individuals, including 12,346 children, are in the Bridge Card program, formally called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Cardholders spend 3.5 million of these electronic food dollars in the Grand Vision region each year, mostly at grocery or convenience stores.

Elsewhere, farmers markets accepting Bridge Card are seeing those revenues grow. In Flint, for example, farmers earned $60,000 in revenues from Bridge Cards in 2008; they earned more than $100,000 in 2009.

The potential market is even larger: 5,844 women and children in the Grand Traverse region receive a different Bridge Card, connected to the Women Infant and Children program. Unlike SNAP, the WIC Bridge Card only works for specific items meant for the nutrition of pregnant moms and children through age five. 

But while WIC long allowed purchases of eggs, cheese, and milk, only last year did it work for buying fresh fruits and vegetables. 

As a result, WIC moms in the region now have more than $420,000 a year to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, and $14 million statewide. Currently, only grocery stores are allowed to accept the WIC card, but the state Department of Community Health is pushing for federal permission to test new technology that would allow farmers markets to accept WIC cards, as well as SNAP cards.

Jenifer Murray, personal health administrator and WIC supervisor for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, looks forward to that.

“We are interested in making sure that families have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so if we can open that up at a farm market stand or an official farmers market, it gives people better, closer-to-home access,” she said. “I believe the fresher and closer to home it is, the more nutrition there is. It tastes better, looks better, and more families are apt to eat it, especially the kids.”

Happy Kitchen, Happy Kids
Meanwhile, Ms. Machleit, whose 36-year-old husband is getting job re-training at Northwestern Michigan College, is grateful she can use her SNAP card at Marvin’s Gardens. She says she gets better deals there than she finds in grocery stores, loading up on big bags of apples that she sets on her kitchen table for the kids to grab from whenever they want a snack.

And she creates colorful stir-fries for dinner with whatever happens to be in season.

“A little bit of olive oil, lots of vegetables, some chicken, and you’re done,” she said, while she chopped a sweet red pepper for that night’s dinner and her kids gobbled up handfuls of Marvin’s blueberries from a bowl on the table. “You can put just about anything in this. We put corn in, right off the cob. You can throw apples in there.”

During a lull in the conversation and pepper chopping 12-year-old Kari asked: “Mom, are you done yet?”

Marlene said yes—and Kari hopped up from her seat and helped herself to a slice of red pepper.

The refrigerator in Marlene’s kitchen displays something else her kids are very interested in: How they can earn fake “money” and what they can buy with it.  They get $1 for tasks such as making their beds, doing laundry, putting dishes away—and  an extra dollar for doing it without being asked. They can use it to “buy” a family bike ride, bowling, a day at the beach—and picking out their favorite fruit or vegetable at the market.

For Marlene’s 10-year-old son Justin, that presents a real dilemma:

“They’re just all too good,” he said.

Diane Conners directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food for All Program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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