Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fresh produce for a million seniors

From the excellent electronic newsletter, Foodlinks America:

A million elderly Americans will be getting free produce this summer, thanks to the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). Under the program, eligible seniors are given vouchers they can redeem for fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and in community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

The SFMNP reached an estimated one million seniors in 2005, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the program is expected to benefit about the same number again this season. The SFMNP, which currently operates in 46 jurisdictions (38 states, six Indian Tribal Organizations, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico) and is funded at $15 million annually, last year increased sales for 14,000 farmers selling at 2,500 farmers’ markets, 2,000 farmstands, and 215 CSAs.

Entitlement funding for the SFMNP was earmarked under the 2002 Farm Bill, exempting the program from annual appropriations battles, but locking funding in place for the five-year life of the legislation. The limitation on funds has left current state and Tribal grantees unable to grow their programs and at least eight states that have expressed interest in initiating an SFMNP are unable to access federal funds.

“I hate it because we turn so many people away,” Cindy Willard, director of the SFMNP for the Osage Tribal Council in Pawhuska, OK, which only gets enough money to serve 1,100 seniors. “We’re already getting lots of calls from elders and within two weeks after the program starts we’ll be turning people away,” she said, as word of the program spreads rapidly. Three principal means of communication among the Tribe are “telephone, telegram, and tell an elder,” Willard explained.

At recent USDA-sponsored Farm Bill forums around the country, SFMNP supporters called for an overall increase in program funding, administrative support over and above the grants for food, and the addition of other items to the program, such as honey, nuts, and eggs.

Revisions to the SFMNP may occur in the near future not only as a result of legislation – if Congress takes up reauthorization of the Farm Bill this year – but also from regulations. Proposed rules for the SFMNP issued by USDA in May 2005 are expected to be finalized this summer. Among the changes proposed is a $50 annual limit on benefits per recipient, a provision that would have a significant effect on CSAs in the program.

The SFMNP has been a tremendous benefit for both seniors and farmers’ markets in Alabama, where the program run, by the state farmers’ market authority, operates in all 67 counties and will serve approximately 62,000 elders this year. “Almost all the seniors I talk to say they would not be shopping at the farmers’ market if it were not for the extra support they get for fruits and vegetables,” said administrator Don Wambles. “It is one of the most enjoyable and most beneficial government programs ever created,” added Ms. Willard.

The issue also contains great articles on recent federal budget developments, prospects for changing the name of the Food Stamp Program, and a nutrition and obesity roundup. Subscriptions to Foodlinks America are free from Barbara Vauthier (link temporarily unavailable).