Improving Food Access

In 2009, my family and I bought a house out in the country and we filled our land with gardens. One spring day, I was bitten by a snake while wading in our pond. I got very sick from the bite, and later had 18 tumors removed from my abdominal cavity. We lost our family business in the process of paying my medical bills. We applied for food stamps, and could not afford the things we needed at our grocery store, especially fresh and local produce.

Throughout the time I was sick, my happy place was the garden. My family planted many tomatoes, and I decided to become a vendor at the Wabasha Farmers Market where I enjoyed chatting with the local customers.

I heard from so many families in need that summer that I decided to volunteer as market manager with one of my goals being to increase the market’s affordability. It took a couple months, but we were eventually able to procure an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) machine, so the market could take food stamps.

As market manager, I did outreach at the food pantry, the work development offices, and the church. I realized how many organizations in Wabasha County worked with the same clientele, but had never met face-to-face. I sent out an email and asked, “How can we work together to make the food access in our community stronger?”

We decided to meet for the first time in 2013, and I was surprised by how many attended — from social workers to housing developers to hospital staff. We couldn’t stop talking; it was incredible how much we learned from one another. Many said: “I’ve sent people to you” and “I’ve heard about you but never met you.” We continue to meet on a quarterly basis and identify ways we can improve access to healthy food. We’ve implemented a number of strategies so far, including providing education around SNAP/EBT benefits outside grocery stores and bringing healthier options to food shelves.

The organizations that work with our low-income population are mostly run by volunteers. When I was using food stamps, I was intimidated by that constant turnover of personnel — seeing new faces each time I went to access resources. I realized that if we work together to create a more connected community by consolidating our resources and knowledge, our clientele will also benefit. Providing the logistical support for EBT use is only one step towards increasing access to healthy and local food.

When we share our stories, spaces naturally become more accessible, welcoming, and supportive.

Sara George (she/her) is vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Market Association.

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