Valley Partners Celebrate More Funding to Expand Farmers Market Benefits

WARREN, Ohio – There’s little question that farmers markets have gotten much more popular over the last few years. On any given week in the summer, there are plenty of options across the Mahoning Valley to pick up freshly grown plucked fruits and vegetables, along with other delights to satisfy any foodie.

But beyond supporting local farmers and culinary artisans, they also play an important role in closing the gap in food access that has left swaths of the Mahoning Valley without easy ways to get fresh produce.

Through nutrition assistance programs like Double Food Bucks seen at markets run by Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership or expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offerings at grocery stores, community partners like Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, Mercy Health and Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. have joined to help residents get the most bang for their buck when buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

On Tuesday, partners from across the state and the Valley joined at Warren Community Amphitheatre to celebrate $7 million in state and federal funding aimed at furthering those efforts. 

“I can say with complete sincerity that the organizations and individuals that I’ve worked with in the Valley have been second to none,” said Tevis Freeman, executive director of Produce Perks Midwest. “Kudos to the leadership, vision and people that come out of the Valley. We’re so happy to celebrate these achievements here.”

Established in 2015 and with programming launching two years later, Produce Perks is a nonprofit working to expand nutrition assistance programs across Ohio, serving as a coalition for regional organizations to better attract funding. Last year, the organization reported $2.4 million in sales statewide, including $855,515 in one-to-one matches of fresh produce purchases using SNAP, EBT or P-EBT benefits. In total, purchases were made by more than 22,000 households in Ohio shopping at 969 businesses or vendors, like those found at farmers markets. 

Local groups like Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, Mercy and YNDC “have been leading the work for a number of years. It’s only been of late that we’ve expanded this to a statewide effort, but it’s been happening for years in the Valley. They’re experts on a statewide level helping to advance this effort,” Freeman continued.

The full $7 million isn’t coming to the Mahoning Valley, said Sarah Lowry, director of Healthy Community Partnership, a component of Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley. But the local efforts and collaborations – and their results – mean a decent amount will come here to continue expanding networks.

“Partnerships are central. This success today with nutrition incentives or the markets wouldn’t happen without developing partnerships between community organizations,” she said.

Added Shari Harrell, president of the Community Foundation: “From internal partnerships like we’ve built with our affiliate foundations and component funds to external connections with other agencies, foundations, residents, lawmakers and community leaders, we accomplish so much more when we work together.”

The initial investors in the local Produce Perks effort were the Western Reserve Health Foundation and the Trumbull Regional Health Foundation, both part of the organization.

“They willingly invested in the creation of the Healthy Community Partnership and supported the effort to bring together organizations and individuals to work together collaboratively on issues facing our community,” Harrell said. “Those grant dollars, while relatively small, reflect local buy-in and support regionally. They helped leverage significant state and federal resources.”

Outside of Produce Perks, TNP was awarded a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish the Farmers Market Network, which unites local markets and provides technical assistance and meetings to help better organize and develop markets.

“Through that coalition, new markets have been able to bring in SNAP, Double Up, WIC and senior vouchers,” Lowry said. “They can share information and leverage resources to make sure that all the parties that need to be present to address something as complicated as food insecurity are there at the table.”

The impact of such organization and support, local political leaders said, is hard to ignore. In Warren, Mayor Doug Franklin noted, there are four areas of the city that are considered food deserts.

“Although this Produce Perks program isn’t a cure-all, it certainly goes a long way in helping us get to where we need to be to help our families, particularly children, grow and be successful. It all starts with healthy living and nutrition,” he said.

And in its 2017 Warren Food Insecurity Strategic Plan, TNP found two cncering data points that speak to the limited access to fresh food the city faces. There are no full-service grocery stores in the southern half of the city – south of Market Street – and 80% of respondents cited “not enough money” as the primary reason for their food insecurity, reported Matt Martin, TNP’s executive director.

“Decades of austerity and divestment from the social safety net will not be undone overnight. We have a long way to go,” he said. “But today we’re celebrating. These are exactly the kinds of investments in our community and our health from both state and federal governments that will truly help move the needle on food access.”

Farmers markets, noted Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, are just one piece of the puzzle. Layers need to be added to fully address the issue.

“These farmers markets are a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Now, we’re talking about adding mobile markets. Each of these are layers that improve access. Soon – take it to the bank – we’re going to see investment in brick and mortar,” he said. “As we come out of this pandemic, we can’t just survive. We have to thrive.”

At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan has been a long-time supporter of improving access to healthy foods and has been a major supporter of both Produce Perks and local developments, those involved said. The reason, he said Tuesday, is a simple one.

“The bottom line is that we have our kids going into a competitive, global economic system,” said Ryan, D-13 Ohio. “If we can’t at the very least – in the wealthiest country on God’s green Earth – make sure that every kid regardless of ZIP code has access to adequate and healthy food, then we’re not going to do well in anything else: school, research, infrastructure or a million other things.”

Pictured: At Tuesday’s event were Warren Mayor Doug Franklin, Healthy Community Partnership Director Sarah Lowry, Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley President Shari Harrell, Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership Executive Director Matt Martin, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and his son Brady, and Tevis Freeman, executive director of Produce Perks Midwest.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.