Nora G. Hertel
Emily and Camilla De los Santos, ages 3 and 6, try some fresh vegetables at the Public Health Madison and Dane County clinic on Park Street, August 13, 2014. Their mother took advantage of vouchers and redeemed them at the farm stand in front of the clini
On Wednesdays, Juan Gonzalez sets up a lone farm stand in front of the public health clinic on Park Street and passes out subsidized vegetables to women and their young children. His produce fuels a grant-supported collaboration between the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, where he's a founding member, and Public Health Madison and Dane County.
The SEED grant, provided by the city of Madison and its Food Policy Council, covers $10 bags of vegetables. It aims to encourage families visiting the public health clinic to to eat more fresh and local food and to stretch the $17 annual voucher they already receive through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
Before the grant, staff at the clinics noticed that 45% of people who took the farmers' market vouchers weren't redeeming them.
"It's just hard for families to get [to markets]" says Cheryl Levendoski, the farmers' market coordinator for the WIC program.
So the clinic and its partners boosted the voucher with more produce, brought the produce to the families and provided samples and recipes of the food.
Next to Gonzalez's table of sweet-smelling cantaloupe, beans, greens, squash and herbs sat staff from the WIC program, UW-Extension and Spring Rose.
"This is a real collaborative effort," Levendoski says. The cooperative has worked with the clinic since 2012, when it set up a farm stand at the East Washington Avenue public health location at the suggestion of a client seeking local food.
These partnerships are important in addressing dietary needs across the city, says Mark Woulf, Madison's food and alcohol policy coordinator.
The Food Policy Council provided 10 grants this year totaling $50,000; 16 other proposals didn't make the cut. The council sought to provide small, one-time grants to programs that focused on increasing children's access to nutritional foods, says Woulf.
Samples and recipes
Woulf says the council also wanted to make sure that people were equipped to make use of the fruits and vegetables: "If we're providing extra produce, are these families in a position to know what to do with the produce?"
A nutrition educator with UW Extension got involved and, last Wednesday, was at the clinic offering tastes of prepared tomatoes, green beans and yellow squash along with recipes. The recipes were simple, relying on minimal ingredients.
Miriam Sanchez's 3- and 6-year-old daughters eagerly awaited the samples. Unlike many others who receive WIC, Sanchez frequents the downtown farmers' market with her girls.
Chris Brockel, executive director of the FairShare CSA Coalition, says low-income people face multiple obstacles to accessing healthy, affordable food. Many live in neighborhoods that don't have full-service grocery stores, healthy restaurants or farmers' markets. On South Park Street where the clinic and farm stand are located, fast food restaurants, drug stores and gas stations are the primary outlets for food.
"I don't think that low-income folks are different from other people," says Brockel, who is also on the Food Policy Council. "We're just a society that's moved away from cooking, cooking at home, gardening."
Gonzalez volunteered to set up shop at public health clinics because he likes passing on healthy and fresh options to people who don’t always have access to that kind of food. He also likes meeting people, he says through a Spanish-language interpreter. And he chats in Spanish with the families receiving his produce.
In the early weeks of the program the leafy greens in the free bags were not especially popular. But Levendoski says each week they've given away all 44 bags of produce they set aside, and she considers the effort a success so far.
A public health intern has been surveying the families who use the farm stand this summer. Brianna Luster is one of the students from the Wanda Fullmore Youth Employment Initiative, a paid internship program backed by the city and county that debuted this summer. Luster will be a senior at East High School this year and says her experience at the WIC offices has been eye opening.
"A lot of people are going hungry," Luster says. "A lot of kids who are hungry are bigger (overweight), because they don't have access to healthy food."
The Food Policy Council will assess the success of the SEED grant programs, Woulf says. Mayor Paul Soglin and the council hope to continue the grants next year and are networking to build ties to private sources of funding to take over the current SEED grants.
"Hopefully we got it started and somebody else can pick up the tabs along the way," Woulf says.