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Low-income senior citizens in 10 northwest Ohio counties can get up to $72 each in free, locally grown produce from area farm markets this year.
That's less than the $90 maximum provided locally by the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program the last three years and the $120 maximum in 2001. But it's still far more than is offered to seniors almost anywhere else in the country through the pilot federal program now in its fifth year.
"The clientele in Toledo is very fortunate," Shari Baker, nutrition manager with the Ohio Department of Aging, said, adding that in Franklin County, which surrounds Columbus, the maximum is $20 to $30.
The Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio Inc., which is based in Toledo, has just under $1.1 million for the program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year, down from almost $1.2 million last year.
Thus, directors decided to reduce the amount given to each individual so they can continue to provide some free produce to the same number of seniors. Last year almost 17,000 seniors in Lucas, Ottawa, Wood, Fulton, Henry, Williams, Defiance, Paulding, Sandusky, and Erie counties received coupons for free fruits and vegetables.
People who are 60 or older and meet annual income guidelines - $17,705 or less for a single person, for instance - are eligible for the produce coupons, which are to be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at 52 area senior centers.
Applications for the produce coupons will be available at some senior centers beginning tomorrow, but the first round of coupons will not be distributed until June 1. Those with questions about the program should contact the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio Inc. at 419-382-0624.
There is less money for the farm market program this year because of a federal ruling on how to treat funds that were not spent last year.
At the end of each year, federal administrators had been rolling unspent funds into the following year's program. But last fall the Office of Management and Budget and the Agriculture Department's general counsel ruled that did not comply with regulations.
So more than $1 million that the farm market program was allotted in 2004 - but did not spend - was returned to the U.S. treasury instead of being added to this year's distributions. That will not be the case next year, however. An amendment from U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) was approved to roll funds that the farm market program does not spend back into its own budget the following year, her chief of staff, Roger Szemraj, said.
Miss Kaptur also has again introduced legislation to increase funding for the program, which is allotted $15 million a year through 2007 under the current farm bill. She proposes increasing that to $25 million this year, $50 million next year, and $75 million in 2007.
The legislation has about 20 co-sponsors, including Sherrod Brown (D., Lorain), Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D., Cleveland), and Carolyn Kilpatrick (D., Detroit). But adoption in this year of budget overruns is probably a long shot.
Miss Kaptur introduced a similar bill last year that the House Agriculture Committee never took up. And the 5-year-old senior farm market program remains little known even among many federal agriculture leaders.
The free produce for seniors is important in part because some spend so much of their income on prescription drugs, heating bills, or other expenses that they do not eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as they should - and that can lead to further health problems, said Billie Johnson, executive director of the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio.
Last year, 5,000 local seniors who qualified for free produce did not receive any because they were too late for the limited number of first-come, first-served coupons, she said.
Mrs. Johnson's 10 counties are among only 13 in Ohio that receive funds for the program - and they get the lion's share, collecting 7 percent of the total federal allotment. Elsewhere, Franklin County is to receive $93,000 this year, Portage County in northeast Ohio is to get $11,000, and Noble County in southeast Ohio is to get $6,000.
Perhaps most eager for increased funding for the program are Area Agency on Aging leaders in bordering counties.
Ohio's Lima area office, which is responsible for Hancock, Putnam, Allen, and Van Wert counties locally, has applied twice to become part of the farm market program, but was turned down both times because of a lack of funds.
Whether or not funding is changed next year, new federal regulations might impact how much produce area seniors receive in 2006.
Ms. Baker, of the Ohio Department of Aging, said because the farm market initiative is a pilot, it has operated without as many regulations as most government programs, leaving many decisions up to local administrators.
But she predicted that this fall Agriculture Department officials will write rules that might specify how many produce coupons each recipient is given or how the program is administered or evaluated.
Those proposed rules would probably be posted for public comment in the fall or winter and some version of them implemented next summer, she said.
The program appears to be as beloved by fruit and vegetable farmers as it is by seniors.
This year, a record 115 farmers operating market stands are expected to redeem the federal coupons, competing for the extra $1.1 million that area seniors will have in their wallets.
Tom Strain & Sons Farm Market in South Toledo has typically led the pack in coupon redemptions. In 2003, for instance, the Strain market on Hill Avenue took in $286,500 in coupons - almost a quarter of the total for northwest Ohio.