By Matt Kelly

Lack of access to fruits and vegetables is directly related to higher rates of illnesses in many of our communities. But what if we removed the problem of access as a contributor to these health inequities in our region? Can we use our region’s agricultural abundance to ensure access to healthy food for all residents?

This article is part of an on-going seriesthat explores these questions.

Photo courtesy of Maria Strinni

Jennifer Bertron is the Community Collaboration Coordinator at the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, and she's familiar with what it takes to improve access to fruits and vegetables for families in the Elmira area. When asked what she sees as the greatest challenge to equitable access, her answer is a familiar one: Families just don't have enough resources to purchase what they need.

"When I first started doing this work, I used to hear that people didn't know what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables," she says. "But I don't seem to hear that too much any more. I hear more about the cost."

And with cost comes another interesting concern: Families stick to buying the same food items and hesitate to buy anything new or different, even if those new items might be a far healthier choice.

Photo courtesy of Maria Strinni

"You have to realize that, when you have kids, it's risky to buy new things," says Bertron. Parents don't know if the new food is something their kids are going to like. This poses a unique and, perhaps, underappreciated challenge for families who have limited resources and need to make every cent count. "Moms are not willing to risk spending money on something their kids might not like or eat," says Bertron.

That's why the Food Bank of the Southern Tier runs the Kids' Farmers Market program, which allows kids to "shop" for vegetables of their own choosing. They might pick items they absolutely love or items that they're simply curious to try; either way, the program exposes the children to a variety of produce without any risk to their families' grocery budgets. These farmers markets are held across the Southern Tier during the summer at free Summer Meal sites and during the school year at specific after-school programs.

"The program is still very small, still in its piloting phase," says Bertron. However, it is growing. The Kids' Farmers Markets were originally located at just a few sites in Elmira during the summer; now the program runs year-round at some sites and has expanded to locations in Addison, Corning, Watkins Glen and Odessa. Each site sets up a space to emulate the vibe of a real farmers market: two long tables with wooden crates filled with around five different fresh produce items to choose from. The kids come through with their bags and pick what they want. Cornell Cooperative Extension folks are often on site to talk with the children about the available items, to hand out recipes, and to provide demonstrations and samples.

Photo courtesy of Maria Strinni

It’s been expensive to operate the program, says Bertron, because the food bank has to purchase the produce it makes available to the kids. Often the food bank buys its fruits and vegetables from a regional supplier because it’s typically less expensive than buying from local farmers. Bertron says they hope to continue growing the food bank's Healthy Harvest program — a broader initiative to provide local produce to the community and funded in part by a grant from the Walmart Foundation’s State Giving Program — to purchase and distribute even more locally-grown fruits and vegetables through the Kids' Farmers Markets.

"In any market situation, you need people coming with money to purchase things in order to have a sustainable local economy," says Bertron. Obviously, farmers cannot be expected to give away their produce for free. And this is where the Food Bank of the Southern Tier can be a critical connection: It helps bridge that financial gap for local families who either can't afford to pay what local farmers need or who can't afford to risk the resources they do have to try something new.

"It's hard for the folks that we're serving to participate in a local or regional fresh food program unless we bring it to them," says Bertron. "That's why a connection between farms and a program like this is so great: It influences the kids and that in turn influences the parents."

Which, in the end, is great for the community as a whole.

We’d like to thank Jennifer Bertron and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier for all the fantastic work they do, and for their help with this story.