Coupon program helps shoppers buy local at B.C. farmers markets

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      Pat Bayes likes to bake and cook with fresh local produce.

      Last month, she prepared a pavlova. It’s a meringue-based dessert made with eggs, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries she bought at her favourite Vancouver farmers market. That’s the Main Street Station Market, which runs Wednesday afternoons from June to October.

      She can almost taste the corn she plans to pick up on her next visit. “Fresh corn just steamed for three minutes, you can’t beat that,” Bayes told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home.

      She’s thankful for a provincial-government-funded program that allows her to shop at farmers markets even though her economic circumstances have drastically changed in recent years. The program provides vouchers that seniors, and low-income individuals and families, can use to purchase fresh, locally grown food at participating farmers markets.

      The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program is expected to benefit 10,000 British Columbians in 52 communities across the province this year.

      “I cannot say enough good about the program,” Bayes said. “For people on income assistance, it’s a real godsend.”

      A few years ago, Bayes was working as the executive director of Stand Up for Mental Health, a nonprofit organization that uses comedy to shatter the stigma around mental-health issues. Because of a brain injury, Bayes is now on disability assistance.

      “Anyone can find themselves on income assistance, and I went from being a major supporter and participant in the farmers market to becoming a recipient of the coupon program,” she said. “And if it weren’t for the coupon program, I could not shop at the farmers market.”

      The program is administered by the B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets (BCAFM). Beneficiaries receive a total of $240 worth of coupons that they can use over the summer and fall seasons.

      The vouchers are distributed through community partners selected by the BCAFM. These partners are nonprofits, neighbourhood houses, and government agencies that deliver food- and nutrition-related services in their communities, like cooking lessons, household-budgeting seminars, and gardening instructions.

      Peter Leblanc, who manages the program with the BCAFM, said that the healthy-eating initiative has also attracted support from community groups like Rotary clubs, as well as businesses. He cited Whole Foods Market as an example. The natural and organic food retailer donates cash so more families in Vancouver can be enrolled in the coupon program.

      “It’s an interesting and wonderful relationship, because we’re both selling food,” Leblanc told the Straight in a phone interview about the support of Whole Foods Market. “We really appreciate the fact that they see us as a good community partner.”

      On August 6, the B.C. Liberal government announced an additional $1 million in funding for the program. According to Leblanc, the money will allow the program to continue until 2018.

      In addition to the farmers market on Station Street where Bayes likes to shop, there are five other Vancouver markets participating in the nutrition-coupon program. These are at Trout Lake, the West End, Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre plaza.

      The community partners of the BCAFM in Vancouver are the Hastings Community Centre, Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Collingwood Neighbourhood House, Gordon Neighbourhood House, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, Circles of Care and Connection, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Multilingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities.

      According to Bayes, the coupon program is a good way to introduce young families to farmers markets, where they can feel a direct connection to growers and the land where their food comes from.

      “It’s an experience that you don’t get anywhere else,” Bayes said. “You certainly don’t get it when you get to the store and pick up a package of something that’s been on a container ship for 5,000 miles.”