Jefferson County Farmers Markets hope to change that.

Americans, but especially low-income Americans, constantly find themselves facing a dilemma at supermarkets and other food stores: either buy the expensive healthy food and not have enough money to pay the bills, or buy the cheap “food-like” products, and put themselves at risk of developing all manner of health problems—especially obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, West Virginia and Mississippi lead the nation with the highest rates of obesity—both coming in at over 35 percent (reported in 2015). The estimated annual medical care cost of obesity and its cousins (see above) reaches as high as $147 billion. The CDC estimates that around 112,000 people die every year from obesity or obesity-related causes.

Obesity rates have more than doubled in the U.S. since the 1970s (National Center for Health Statistics). Sadly, about 25 percent of 2-5-year-olds, and one-third of school-age children (including adolescents) are overweight or obese in the U.S.

And many of these folks, young and old, fall within the aforementioned low-income categories—their health realities defined much of the time by an inability to afford healthy food, or easy access to an abundance of cheap, dangerously unhealthy food.

But as the title of this article indicates, there are a number of people in Jefferson County endeavoring to reverse this trend.

If you receive federal assistance (i.e., you’re part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: SNAP)—formerly known as the Food Stamps Program—then you’re well aware of where you can spend your nutritional dollars, what you can spend it on, and how much bang you get for your buck(s).

SNAP gives aid to nearly 50 million Americans annually. The program has been a key driver in preventing food insecurity in the U.S., but our current food system in this country is, without a doubt, a dirty problem in need of a clean solution.

And that solution is beginning to emerge at the grassroots level through farmers markets across the country, and more importantly for Jefferson County SNAP recipients, right here at home.

Here’s how it works: if you have a SNAP card and you bring it to the participating farmers market in Jefferson County (Charles Town, Shepherdstown, and the VA Market), they will match the money you spend by giving you an equal amount of “Market Bucks,” thus cutting the cost of these healthy, local food options in half.

Through the same EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) terminals used in stores nationwide—which replaced the old system of paper vouchers, aka: food stamps—SNAP users can simply swipe their SNAP card and enter their PIN number at a local market, which accesses their benefits. And whatever they spend (it varies per location), the market will match, and give them that amount in Market Bucks to spend, as well.

Mark Cucuzzella

Much of the legwork for this program was done by Shepherdstown’s Dr. Mark Cucuzzella—a competitive runner and professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

“So about a year and a half ago, we got involved with Wholesome Wave—a non-profit in Connecticut that’s trying to improve access to healthy food for low-income folks,” he explained. “All around the country, they’re utilizing EBT terminals at farmers markets—encouraging people who use federal dollars for food to make better choices, and obviously have access to it. This program is attempting to create awareness within the community that this money can be spent on healthy food now—and it’s affordable.”

Cucuzzella knows that hardly any illness exists today where healthy eating isn’t part of the treatment or prevention. “You can’t change laws, but even in medicine, there’s a whole new category called ‘food insecurity,’” he said. “The illness or disease you have is impacted by your ability to consume healthy food. Anyone that understands health understands that food is foundational.

“It’s not like one day you wake up with diabetes. Your body has been under metabolic stress for years and years—until one day your doctor says you’ve got diabetes. And most of the time, that’s from processed, simple carbohydrates—or cardiovascular disease from the inflammatory oils, vegetable oils, and trans fats. So we want to get people off of that path as much as we can.”

Cucuzzella uses what he calls the “three As” as his model for how the Market Bucks program is hopefully going to evolve in this area: Acceptability, Affordability, and Accessibility. “Right now, cheap, unhealthy food is acceptable, it’s affordable, and it’s very accessible,” he pointed out. “You go to a kids’ birthday party and the hosts are giving out cookies, cakes, sodas, and tons of varieties of processed sugary foods. You visit an average American barbecue or a tailgate party—or almost any type of get-together with food, and what do you see? So the acceptability is definitely there. It’s also right at eye level in grocery stores, and right there within reach when you check out. And it’s very affordable—especially for people on SNAP. In America, unfortunately, the cheapest food to buy is the worst for your health.”

Recognizing that this movement has a long way to go with food before we’ll see a shift in those three factors—a shift that begins to affect policy—Cucuzzella partnered with the local hospital system in Jefferson and Berkeley Counties (University Healthcare) to receive grant money to supplement the Market Bucks program.

“With the hospital being a non-profit, by law, to maintain that non-profit status, they need to give money back—under what is called a community benefit,” he affirmed. “They need to give back a certain percentage of the gross income, and they can choose to do a number of things with that money. So a slice of that this year went into this program. Additionally, if the hospital can use that money to create health, then that’s a win-win for everyone.”

He also has high hopes that the program on the local level will serve as both an immediate solution to nutrition needs for area SNAP users, and an educational opportunity that allows people to enjoy food, and even have the community experience attached to local food.

Cucuzzella is fostering a huge promotional push to get the word out about the program, and he’s getting help from Fiona Harrison, the market manager at Charles Town Farmers Market—which has been running the SNAP program since 2013.

“We incorporated the SNAP program two years ago and were the first to offer it in the area,” she said. “And up until recently, we just haven’t been able to push the program through any promotional efforts—which is where we are now.”

With some allotted money in the program set aside for personnel, Harrison will spearhead the marketing effort this winter. “We’re now starting to market it in various ways to get the word out to the communities of the Eastern Panhandle—the DHHR offices, the WIC families, health clinics, hospitals, and more,” she indicated. “Our goal this winter is to get marketing pieces in all of these places—including posters in doctors offices, etc., and even in schools. The grant that Mark secured is going to allow me to push through and broadcast it for all of the farmers markets.”

Harrison knows that by creating awareness, barriers will begin to decrease. “Maybe some folks are intimidated by the markets, or they don’t have proper transportation,” she said. “This program at least opens the window and starts the conversation that might get people to the markets—seeking healthier food options for themselves and their families.”

Megan Webber runs the SNAP program as one of the market managers for the Shepherdstown Farmers Market, and, like Harrison, sees this program as a huge opportunity for everyone involved.

“We collect the anonymous data through the EBT terminals and send it to Wholesome Wave,” she said. “They collect all of that data from all their participating markets and use it to apply for new grants.

“It opens up the market to new people and gives them new options and opportunities. How cool is it to be able to tell someone who’s on a limited budget that your twenty dollars is now forty dollars, and you can get healthy, local food as a result?”


(This story was originally printed in the fall of 2015)

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