Locals hopeful program will help mitigate fresh food insecurity

Published 12:10 am Sunday, July 19, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — One local organization is hopeful that the success of this year’s farmers market and more vouchers allotted to WIC recipients will help ease fresh food insecurity for some families in the county.

Shanelle Wilkey, Rowan County WIC director, said the county’s participation in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program is a “win-win” for both the recipients and the farmers. The program helps improve the nutrition of WIC participants, who are often low-income mothers with young children. But the program also increases farmers’ share of the food dollar, she said, and it helps revitalize rural areas by increasing awareness and use of farmers markets.

Access to healthy foods continues to be an issue in Rowan County, according to the 2019 State of the County Health Report compiled by the health department. As of 2020, 11% of people in Rowan County have limited access to healthy foods, meaning they are of low-income and do not live close to a grocery store. The state’s rate is at 7%. Additionally, 14% of the population have food insecurity and lack adequate access to food.

“The program aims to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables who many may not otherwise have access to,” Wilkey said. “Breastfeeding women, pregnant women and young children need those nutrients.”

Rowan is one of 30 counties that participates in the state’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, and the Salisbury Farmers Market is the only one in the county that accepts the vouchers.

The vouchers are sent from the state once each summer. But in an effort to promote a higher rate of usage, this year’s vouchers are worth $5 each and each qualified recipient can have up to six vouchers, which amounts to $30 per participant per family. That’s an increase from last year’s vouchers, Wilkey said, when each voucher was worth $4 each. Mothers who are pregnant, breast-feeding or postpartum qualify, and children aged 2 to 5 qualify as recipients.

Participants have a limited time to use the vouchers, and they can’t be reimbursed if unused. Additionally, the vouchers can only be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables grown in North Carolina.

Historically, the redemption rate on the vouchers “hasn’t been good,” Wilkey said. Over the previous five years, the redemption rate hovered between 46% and 48%. But this year, the state is increasing its efforts to promote the vouchers, which is why the amount Rowan County received doubled to 1,200 this summer. So, people who missed the cut this year may receive voucher.

As of two weeks ago, the county had issued 600 vouchers — enough for 200 participants. Wilkey added she’s hopeful the rate will increase with this success of this season so far.

But transportation can often be a barrier for some WIC recipients, particularly those who live farther away from the Salisbury Farmers Market, she said. However, the vouchers can be used at any other participating market in the state, which opens up options that include the Kannapolis Farmers Market, Lexington Farmers Market and Piedmont Farmers Market in Concord.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also allowed the WIC office, located at the Rowan County Health Department, to mail the vouchers or have participants pick them up curbside.

The farmers market vouchers are supplemental to the monthly fruit and vegetable allotted amount of $11 for moms and $9 for children for use at grocery stores.

David Correll, who serves on the boards of the Rowan County Farm Bureau and the Rowan County Farmers Market, said the purpose of the program is to “get the fresh food into the hands of the folk who are food insecure.”

Correll said the market began receiving the vouchers two weeks ago. He’d like to see the program expanded, and noted a voucher program for seniors as well. While those haven’t been distributed yet, he said seniors can qualify for multiple $3 vouchers to help with their food insecurity.

Both the market manager and farmers stamp the vouchers after the market closes, and they’re deposited at the bank just like any other check.

And this year the farmers market is located at the Railwalk Pavilion with additional, accessible parking. The new look, Correll said, adds to the market’s success this year as many customers are visiting the new farmers market location as “very intentional buyers.” Additionally, vendors are seeing lots of new faces, which comes as a surprise as he and other vendors worried about the effects of the pandemic on this season’s market.

At a July 13 meeting, Rowan County Community Health Manager Alyssa Harris presented commissioners with the 2019 State of the County Health report, which ranks Rowan County 73rd in the state for overall health. One aspect of overall health includes access to healthy foods and transportation for those who are food insecure.

She noted this year’s farmers market has been “remarkable,” and commissioners chairman Greg Edds added that the report shows an interconnectedness of various factors that play into overall health.

“(The farmers market) has been essential,” she said. “And just to see the growth that’s it’s already brought Rowan County, even in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve seen the best farmers market we’ve ever seen so far.”

Wilkey recalled one participant who was so excited to use all of her $60 allotted amount to buy corn on the cob for her family, which she planned to freeze and cook throughout the year.

Both Correll and Wilkey said the health department and vendors at the farmers market offer participants recipes for the produce they purchase to increase the family’s fruit and veggie intake.

“It’s really awesome to see some of the participants come in with their children,” Correll said, adding that parents often allow the children to pick out the fruits and vegetables they like. “The neat added part to it is to see them smiling and see the children take ownership of what they’re eating.”

For more information about the program, contact Rowan County WIC at 704-216-8777, ext. 4.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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