Local farmers market advocates are cheering a recently passed federal farm bill for providing permanent funding for state farmers market grants.

Local public health advocates also said the bill could do more for overall support food assistance programs.

The Farm Bill provides permanent funding for state Farmers Market grant programs that were formerly on a temporary five-year basis. After early uncertainty, Congress didn’t make cuts to some food assistance benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which are redeemable at Farmers Markets.

“It was a win for Farmers Markets,” said Amanda Pastoria, manager of the Umpqua Valley market.

Three farmer’s markets — Umpqua Valley Farmers Market in Roseburg, Canyonville Farmers Market and Lookingglass Grange Farmers Market — are open weekly year-round and two others (Sutherlin and Glide) are open mid-spring to mid-fall.

Not only are these markets community gathering places, they are hubs for food assistance programs in a county with widespread food insecurity. Farmers Market officials are satisfied with funding support included in the recently passed federal farm bill. But local public health advocates say the bill’s overall support for food assistance programs is mixed.

Pastoria said she and other food security advocates in the state wrote to lawmakers after Congressional leaders signaled that they may impose work requirements for SNAP recipients ages 49 to 59 and those with children ages 6 to 12. The added requirements were not included in the final bill, although the White House has said that it may cut food stamps without Congress’ approval.

Farmers markets across Oregon such as the Umpqua Valley market participate in Double Up Food Bucks — a program that allows SNAP recipients to gain an additional $10 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables when they use food stamps at the Farmers Market. Funding in the farm bill makes the state program possible.

Pastoria said the program is crucial for people across the county who struggle with food insecurity.

“It’s such as huge benefit, not only to the consumer because those fresh fruits and veggies are what they don’t really have a lot of access to, but also monetarily it helps our small farms,” Pastoria said.

The proportion of people who are food insecure in Douglas County is greater than it is statewide, according to a June 2018 report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy using 2016 data from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Fifteen percent of people in the county are considered food insecure compared to 13 percent statewide, the report shows. Food insecurity is defined as people who said they struggled to put food on the table or didn’t know how they would get their next meal within the last three years.

That disparity is higher for children. Twenty-five percent of children in the county are food insecure compared to 20 percent statewide.

Twenty-three percent of Douglas County residents and 16 percent of Oregon residents are helped by SNAP benefits. Thirty-seven percent of children in the county and 27 percent of children statewide use SNAP.

Pastoria said the farm bill will also make funds available for state programs aimed at helping seniors and other vulnerable groups. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food assistance for low-income pregnant mothers with young children.

With the passage of the Farm Bill, Pastoria is planning to start writing grant applications for the Double Up Food Bucks program for the spring and summer market season.

Double Up funds ran out at the end of the summer for the year-round Umpqua Valley Market, Pastoria said. People used over $10,000 worth of food assistance money at the market last year.

Local food security advocates such as Jessica Hand are happy the Farm Bill maintains support for programs used at farmers markets. Hand is the community program manager at the Blue Zones Project — a well-being improvement initiative funded by the Cambia Health Foundation.

She said it’s essential for people who are food insecure to be able to buy fresh food at directly from farmers.

“It’s food that’s probably at its highest nutrient density because it’s being picked fresh out of the ground,” Hand said. “It hasn’t traveled for miles to get to you where it gets depleted of its nutrients.”

While food at a farmers market can cost more than it would in a grocery store, fresh food gives people a higher nutritional value for their dollar, Hand said.

Pastoria works hard to create educational resources for people who don’t know how to cook meals using fresh fruits and vegetables, and who would otherwise buy expensive pre-prepared food, Hand added.

Hand was disappointed, however, that the farm bill didn’t include some provisions to address food insecurity she was hoping for.

The bill didn’t give public school food authorities more flexibility with how they spend their budgets, for example. That flexibility would allow school food officials the ability to source food from smaller, local farms that produce more nutritional food, Hand said.

The bill also cut funding for the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program by about half, she said.

The program was formerly funded at $9 million.

Pastoria is hopeful that a farmers market project that’s about to begin will help solidify additional funds to address food insecurity in the future.

The Umpqua Valley market is one of five Farmers Markets participating in a recently awarded $247,000 grant through the Oregon Farmers Markets Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program seeks to collect local data about how to better support the farm economy.

Pastoria will work with consultants and local farmers to better understand their challenges and report the information back to the state.

The Umpqua Valley market is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through March at the First Methodist Church in Roseburg. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April through September.

Max Egener can be reached at megener@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4217. Or follow him on Twitter @maxegener.

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City Reporter

Max Egener is the city reporter for The News-Review. He has a master's degree from the University of Oregon, and is an avid skier and backpacker.

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