For Hugo Community Food Shelf Director Mary Schaefer, eating healthy is an option that should be available to everyone, no matter what their income level. That’s why she’s excited about Fresh Green Buck$, a new initiative that gives grocery shoppers a chance to put fresh fruits and vegetables straight into the hands of food shelf clients in Washington County year-round.
Since this innovative program was launched in mid-April, it’s generated over $3,000 for the Hugo food shelf alone.
“Three thousand dollars buys a lot of produce. The impact on these people is immediate,” Schaefer told me last week. “One hundred percent of the money buys fresh produce.”
The Fresh Green Buck$ money is generated when shoppers tear off a coupon attached to a display posted in the produce section of participating stores. There are three coupon amounts available: $5, $10 and $20. When the shopper checks out, the cashier scans the coupon and the money is deposited into an account for the partnering food shelf. The food shelf then uses the money to buy fresh produce from the store.
“It’s pretty simple to use since we already have scanners set up,” says Mark Hartmann, manager of the Festival Foods store in Hugo, which is a Fresh Green Buck$ partner with Schaefer’s food shelf. “And our customers understand this concept of getting fresh produce into the hands of food shelf clients.”
Besides Hugo, the program is being piloted this spring in three other Washington County communities. The Mahtomedi Area Food Shelf is partnering with Festival Foods in White Bear Lake, Valley Outreach in Stillwater is partnering with River Market Co-op in Stillwater, and in Forest Lake, Community Helping Hands and Bruce’s IGA are working together.
The idea for Fresh Green Buck$ came out of grassroots discussions Land Stewardship Project members and staff began having in the area last fall. At issue was how to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in Washington County enough to have a positive impact on residents’ health. It was learned that while produce is available to food shelves in the summer, very little is available the rest of the year.
Fresh Green Buck$ was developed as a way for food shelves to provide their clients fresh produce during the non-growing season.
It is one of three nutrition projects in Washington County funded through a Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grant. The county was interested in funding Fresh Green Buck$ because it provides an opportunity to improve the nutrition of economically disadvantaged people, said Jean Streetar, Washington County’s Public Health Program Director and SHIP coordinator.
“I think this really helps draw attention to the fact that no matter who you are and where you get your food, you deserve to have access to fresh produce,” she says, adding that it’s a good fit for the county’s Living Healthy Initiative.
Schaefer said without Fresh Green Buck$, her food shelf could not afford to offer produce to its clients year-round, which is unfortunate, given the importance of having fruits and vegetables as a regular part of one’s diet.
“We need to get fresh nutrition into people’s diets,” she says. “Our fresh fruits and vegetables go out as soon as they come in. People love it.”
Being able to provide healthy, fresh produce through food shelves may become even more critical to the overall health of Washington County residents as more of them turn to food shelves in a down economy. Some area food shelves are reporting that demand is up as much as 20 percent from a year ago.
“People are saying that the economy is getting better, but we’re not seeing that,” Schaefer told me.
She would like to see an expanded Fresh Green Buck$ program that, among other things, makes it possible for food shelves to give classes on cooking fresh produce.
Ann DeLa Vergne, a Land Stewardship Project organizer working with community food systems, said Fresh Green Buck$ has the potential to expand to other counties or even the entire state. A natural next step would be a program that buys produce from local farmers during the growing season with money donated through businesses or organizations, she says.
Washington County’s Streetar agreed that there is great potential for such a program to expand in terms of where produce is procured from as well as how it’s distributed.
“We’re interested in continuing it,” she told me.
Unfortunately, the future of Fresh Green Buck$ is up in the air. The 2011 Legislature failed to fund SHIP before convening on May 23. Unless it receives funding during a special legislative session, SHIP will be unable to support programs like Fresh Green Buck$.
“It would be a shame to undercut this program just as it’s getting off the ground,” says DeLa Vergne, who is helping develop a guide for food shelves that are interested in approaching grocery stores about a Fresh Green Buck$ type of partnershipt. “It could not only benefit local health but also the local economy.”
For more information on Fresh Green Buck$, e-mail DeLa Vergne at email@example.com or call her at 651-231-1055.