When organizers developed a youth activity program for Washington Farmers’ Markets in 2015, they thought they could reach 50 kids at one or two markets.
Instead, the program, called KERNEL, immediately expanded to eight Spokane Farmers’ Markets. KERNEL stands for Kids Eating Right-Nutrition and Exercise for Life.
“It exploded,” said Carolyn Knowles, who works with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington on the Food for All program, which includes KERNEL. “It’s a real draw for families. … We’ve had requests from all over the state to host this program in their markets.”
KERNEL began in response to a survey of parents enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children program known as WIC.
“The biggest hurdle for them shopping at farmers’ markets was that there was nothing for their kids to do — nothing to entertain the kids, nothing to encourage them to want to come,” Knowles said. “It’s now something for the whole family.”
KERNEL operations are now in the Spokane, Pullman, Chewelah, Colville and Newport markets, with similar programs in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Ellensburg and Okanogan. The program is provided free of charge, Knowles said.
The organization contracts with the Washington State Farmers Market Association.
Participating children each receive $2 in KERNEL cash to spend at the Farmer’s Market.
KERNEL uses the SNAP Market Match program as a model. In this program, SNAP participants using electronic benefit transfer cards at farmers markets receive up to $40 in matching special currency, for a total of $80.
Both currencies can be spent on fruits, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms and vegetables.
KERNEL money helps remove some of the potential stigma of using food aid money, Knowles said. Children do not need to be enrolled in SNAP, WIC or Senior Check to participate in KERNEL.
In 2019, the best year yet, kids visited KERNEL booths 10,108 times and spent $17,700 in KERNEL cash at eight Spokane Farmers’ Markets.
The activities are aimed at children ages 5-12 and provide education on exercise, nutrition, gardening and agriculture.
They can be as simple as coloring sheets with facts or as complicated as lessons on composting, water cycles and pollinators.
“We try to make them challenging and interesting enough for those older kids, but accessible to any kid that comes along,” Knowles said.
KERNEL aims to show children how farming affects them. For “Give a Farmer a Hand,” kids trace and color their hands, then give their designs to farmers attending farmers’ markets.
A scavenger hunt asks kids to find local produce in all colors of the rainbow at the market, and “Farmers Market Bingo” asks them to find produce at different stalls.
Knowles is open to working with farmers to expand and develop new businesses.
About half of the KERNEL kiosks are run by paid staff and the other half by volunteers.
Knowles estimates that it costs $50,000 each year in community funding to set up the program.
The Spokane Teachers Credit Union and Avista Utilities are funding KERNEL cash refunds and supplies, hopefully for a three-year cycle, she said.