Farmers’ market vouchers help poor eat farm fresh

TheStar.com – News/GTA
Published On Wed Jul 07 2010.   By Catherine Porter, Columnist

I went out to the Stonegate Farmers’ Market in south Etobicoke one afternoon this week.

It was exquisite: potted basil, fresh apricots, pickled white asparagus, mustard seed loaves all on display in the parking lot of a little Anglican church.

There was a strip of shaded grass at the back of the rows of white tents where people lounged, listening to a willowy jazz singer in a turquoise dress.

“Day by day, I’m falling more in love with you. . . ”

Three seniors played bingo.

“This is Canadian atmosphere,” said a woman buying radishes and a basket of cucumbers. “Like a celebration.”

She was exquisite: drop pearl earrings, purple floral skirt, green eyes, Eastern European accent.

She paid with pink plastic cards she got from the food bank. Farmers’ market vouchers.

Looks can be deceiving.

Her name is Irina and back in Russia, she was a married civil engineer. Now, the fiftysomething woman is taking English classes and raising her teenage son alone. They live on welfare — $988 a month. She buys vegetables at night when they’re half-price up at the Chinese green grocers on Bloor. Three times a week, they eat soup made with canned tuna.

“This market is too expensive for me,” she said.

No kidding.

Farmers’ markets address one big economic injustice. Here, farmers can charge the true cost of their work and make a living. It’s the other economic injustice that snags them. Few poor people can afford $4 mustard seed bread.

The market vouchers offer a perfect solution.

“It gives people a chance to buy things they’d like to buy, rather than what they are forced to take,” says Julia Graham, community health worker with the Stonegate Community Health Centre.

She started the program last year with a small grant from the organic food foundation Carrot Cache. Some 240 families got “market money” through the health centre and food bank, which also kicked in some cash. This year, a slightly bigger grant from the McLean Foundation means the program will expand. People like Irina will get $15 in market vouchers twice a season.

That got me some cucumbers, cheese and Georgian Bay whitefish at yesterday’s market. One meal.

But, it’s a start. And it expands the community tent, bringing people who often are isolated by poverty out to gossip to their neighbours, listen to music, join “the celebration.”

Some stats from last year’s program: 80 per cent of the vouchers were used; 80 per cent of those went to fruit and vegetables.

Last year, Ontario’s agriculture minister announced $24 million towards expanding the market for farmers into institutions like schools. None of it has been spent. This would be a good place to start.

That might help with the Ontario health ministry’s conundrum on how to reform the special diet allowance. People who eat fruit and vegetables tend to be healthier than people who eat tuna three times a week.

Instead of $15 twice a season, how about $100 every month? That way we’d be investing in health and local farming and people wouldn’t be hungry.

What was she going to make with her cucumbers, I asked Irina.

“I’ll put them in a jar, pour water over, salt and sugar, then after two, three days. . . ” she said. “In my country, cucumbers are very popular. We eat them all summer. Yum, yum, yum.”

And the radishes?

“I put with cucumbers and boiled egg and green onion and mayonnaise. It’s very nice. Very tasty.”

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