America’s Local Farms: A Healthy Food Economy

Published in the Huffington Post on July 7, 2015.

As part of National Farmers Market Week, I would like to bring attention to an important economic driver, one that is bursting with fresh produce and happy customers. Farmers’ markets connect farms to urban areas, giving people access to fresh, healthy, and locally-grown produce and encouraging growth in local economies and regional food systems. At a time when more than one-third of Americans are considered obese and one-third develop heart disease, it’s time we changed our eating habits. To do this, we need a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system that will grow our economy and increase access to healthy food.

Many Americans do not eat the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. For too many, this is due to a lack of access stemming from the barriers of poverty and the proximity to markets. In the 17th Congressional District, 14.2% of the population, and 22.7% of children, experience food insecurity. Studies suggest low-income adults in households earning 130% of the federal poverty guideline are less likely to consume the recommended servings of at least two servings of fruits or three servings of vegetables daily, compared with adults in households earning 400% of the federal poverty guideline.

With support from the USDA, some farmers’ markets increase access to fresh, locally-grown produce to low-income families through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program. The USDA awarded $31.5 million in funding to local, state, and national organizations for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to double each purchase of fruits and vegetables. In Northampton County, Buy Fresh Buy Local, a program of the Nurture Nature Center received one such award. Through this program, SNAP participants double their dollars on purchases of fresh produce at select famers’ markets, such as the Easton Farmers’ Market, and farm stands, like those in front of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership and at the Urban Farm in Easton’s Southside. Fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, especially when produce is in season, is often priced either the same or less than the same item at grocery stores. Programs like FINI increase the economic bounty of farmers’ markets and help more people access affordable and nutrient dense produce.

We know eating more fruits and vegetables, as part of an overall healthy diet, can improve our health, manage our weight, and reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. These are some of the major causes of death in the United States as well as major contributors to the economic burden of healthcare. According to the American Heart Association, we lose $320.1 billion each year in direct and indirect health care costs and lost productivity due to heart disease and stroke.”

Not only can eating our fruits and vegetables improve our health, buying produce at local farmers’ markets can also grow our regional economy. According to the 2013 food report produced in partnership with EnvisionLV, Northampton County, and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, spending $10 each week on locally grown food has the potential to generate up to $100 million in economic activity annually. Last year, Easton’s Open-Air Farmers’ Market on Saturdays produced $1,004,724 in total sales. This is an estimated economic impact of $1,365,000 on Easton’s downtown businesses.

To encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables, last Congress I introduced the Vegetables Are Really Important Eating Tools for You (VARIETY) Act. The VARIETY Act would give SNAP participants an incentive to buy more fruits and vegetables. SNAP recipients would receive 30 cents on their SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card for every dollar spent on produce. This rebate could then be spent on any SNAP eligible food or beverage. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) used this model in Hampden County, Massachusetts from November 2011 through April 2013. During that time, SNAP participants in all demographics increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by 25%.

Enjoy this harvest season. If you have not already done so, please visit your local farmers’ market before summer ends. Meet your neighbors, make new friends, and buy tasty, nutritious food. A healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system is possible. We can make it happen.