When Alex Ball was a teenager living with his family in downtown Romulus, the only grocery store in town closed.
âI had never thought about food so much, but when the store closed and our neighbors did not have access to fresh food, I started to wonder, ‘How can I fix this problem. ? “, Says Ball. “So when I was 18 I started to research and read and started small-scale farming in my backyard.”
This first backyard garden kicked off a journey that led Ball to become a farmer at the age of 18, then purchase his own land in Sumpter Township to establish Acres of the old town and help local residents access affordable, nutritious and locally grown food.
He says when he told his mother he was going to be a farmer, she cried.
âAll she knew was the suffering the farmers were going through. And it is a real fact, âhe said. “But I think we’re in a new era of farms, and they don’t all fit that description.”
As a participant in Fresh Food Box Program, a new collaboration between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Taste the local difference which serves Ypsilanti and Detroit, Ball recently began accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) as payment for its products. He accepts other forms of payment at his stand at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market and for his participation in his farm’s community-supported agriculture program.
The Fresh Food Box program is just one of the ways that farms and organizations in the Ypsilanti region are innovating to address food security concerns in the greater Ypsilanti region this summer.
Fresh Food Box improves access for eligible families to the SNAP program
Kelly Wilson, director of community partners for Taste the Local Difference, explains that her organization has partnered with MDHHS for several years on various programs aimed at improving community access to local food.
The new Fresh Food Box program is a pilot project specifically focused on connecting farms and farmers’ markets that offer online orders to customers who have SNAP and EBT, two forms of dietary benefits for low-income families. The pilot program serves Ypsilanti and Detroit, as both communities have a high percentage of SNAP-eligible families, but organizers aim to expand the program statewide.
“The hope is that we gain some knowledge of best practices and a better understanding of how this project can work on both the consumer side and the farm side, and slowly spread across the state.” Wilson said. “We have already identified two other communities in which we will expand next year, the western Upper Peninsula and Lansing.”
The program is primarily a marketing campaign to help SNAP-eligible families learn about farms and farmers’ markets that accept SNAP and EBT as online payment. Some community clinic partners screen their patients for food insecurity and refer them to participating farms. Taste the Local Difference also helped sites in Detroit and Ypsilanti figure out how they might start accepting other forms of payment if they hadn’t already, and some sites added Double Up Food Bucks, a program providing an equivalent dollar of fresh produce for every dollar spent by the consumer.
Additionally, Taste the Local Difference received funding from the MDHHS to help agricultural sites with all the technical support they needed, from e-commerce platforms to distribution logistics so that participants could access food safely. .
In addition to several participating Detroit branches, there are two in Ypsilanti: Growing hope‘s Ypsilanti region online market; and Old City Acres, via Ball’s stand at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Depot Town.
Dayna Popkey, Farmers’ Market and Nutrition Manager for Growing Hope, says the Fresh Food Box program is âwonderfulâ.
âIt’s not really about adding a new program, but more about marketing support to let people know that all of our farmers markets are accepting SNAP and doing Double Up Food Bucks,â Popkey said.
Produce at the Ypsilanti farmer’s market.
Popkey says some programs that focus on coupons or tokens redeemed directly between food producers and consumers “took a hit” during the pandemic as fewer people shopped in person at farmers’ markets.
âBut now things are accelerating and there are more opportunities to buy in person, and people are going to be able to better use their benefits,â she said.
Pandemic Causes Changes to Food Gatherers’ Summer Food Service Program
Without the school meal safety net, summer can be a time of hunger for low-income families, especially in the greater Ypsilanti region.
“We know from historical data that postal codes 48197 and 48198 have higher rates of food insecurity,” says Markell Miller, director of community food programs for Food gatherers.
Food Gatherers has operated a summer food service program for school-aged children for many years. This summer, the nonprofit is operating more than a dozen of its 19 food collection sites in Ypsi and Ypsi Township – with several significant changes brought on by the pandemic still in place.
In the past, Food Gatherers served meals to groups of children who were required to consume the food that day, on site, according to state and federal rules. But Food Gatherers staff got state waivers that allowed them to tweak the program to make it more pandemic-friendly. Miller believes that some of these changes could become permanent.
Food Gatherers staff with the van they use to deliver food to summer food service program sites.
A waiver allowed Food Gathers to ignore the requirement that young people eat their food at the site where it is served. Another exemption allows parents to recover seven days of frozen starters, milk and fresh fruit without the presence of children. Another waiver allowed Food Gatherers to run summer food programs in communities that do not meet the requirement to have at least 50% of families eligible for free or reduced school meals.
Not only will the new policies make it easier for parents of school-aged children in Ypsi and Ypsi Canton, but they also make it easier for parents of students in rural areas like Milan to access food. might have to drive a long way to get there. free food, Miller says.
These policies may not be available in the future, unless Congress takes action after the pandemic to update the rules that govern the program, she said.
âI hope that after the pandemic we can retain this flexibility to provide food for families in the way that is best for families,â Miller said.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti township and project manager for On the Ypsilanti field. She joined Focus as a journalist in early 2017 and occasionally contributes to other Press group publications. You can reach her at [email protected].
Photo by Alex Ball courtesy of Old City Acres. Photo of Ypsilanti farmer’s market by Misty Lyn Bergeron. Photo of Food Gatherers courtesy of Food Gatherers.