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Published: 5/14/2006

Low-income seniors can get free produce

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Low-income senior citizens in 10 northwest Ohio counties can get up to $90 worth of free, locally grown produce from area farm markets this year.

And for the first time, such seniors in Michigan's Lenawee and Hillsdale counties can get $20 in produce coupons through the federal Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Monroe County does not have the program.

For northwest Ohio, which gets more money from the program than almost any other region of the country, the $90 maximum per senior is $18 more than last year's limit and the same as the maximum in 2004.

The 10 northwest Ohio counties served by the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio Inc. in Toledo - Lucas, Ottawa, Wood, Fulton, Henry, Williams, Defiance, Paulding, Sandusky, and Erie - are to get almost $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture again this year.

That's almost 90 percent of the funds allotted to Ohio and about 7 percent of the total federal program funds.

This year 38 states, five Indian tribes, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are receiving funds.

Ohio gets the third-largest amount with almost $1.2 million, led only by Pennsylvania and New York, which both get almost $1.4 million. Michigan gets $68,000.

"We do have such an incredibly large program compared to anywhere else," said Rebecca Liebes, director of nutrition at Toledo's Area Office on Aging, which last year distributed coupons to more than 17,000 seniors. "Because we got in on the ground, it's just continued."

Ms. Liebes credits U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo). When the program - now in its sixth year - started in 2001, Miss Kaptur strongly encouraged the Toledo office to apply, even

though the coupon distribution and paperwork was a huge undertaking that didn't come with money for administration.

Now, leaders of senior programs in some other area counties, who weren't aware of the program at its onset or who initially thought it looked like too much work, wish they could get in on it. But the program, which is allotted $15 million a year from the federal farm bill, has only taken new recipients when others were dropped - and that has been rare.

Miss Kaptur, who in recent years has introduced several bills to increase the funding - none of which were taken up by the House Agriculture Committee - now has her sights set on next spring, when serious discussion on the next farm bill is expected to start. The senior farmers market program has $15 million for 2007, but after that its continuation is dependent on the next farm bill.

She has proposed ramping up to $25 million in the first expansion year, $50 million the second year, and $75 million the third year.

"It would be fabulous if it could be replicated throughout the state and throughout the country," Ms. Liebes said.

Miss Kaptur's chief of staff, Roger Szemraj, said there is interest on Capitol Hill in expanding the program. There is also, however, a war and a budget deficit, and the tiny farmers market program is not widely known, even among Washington agriculture insiders.

Even if Congress would approve more money for the senior farmers market program in years to come, this might be the last year that northwest Ohio residents can each get up to $90 in coupons.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to issue regulations that would standardize the program nationwide beginning next year. Those rules have yet to be released, but proposals called for maximum payments of significantly less than $90 per recipient.

Farmers who redeem the coupons love the program as much as the seniors who get the free produce. Last year, 113 farmers in the 10 northwest Ohio counties accepted coupons, and for some the coupons accounted for a significant percentage of their annual sales.

Barry Bergman, president of Bergman Orchards east of Port Clinton, credited the program with reviving the Sandusky Farmers Market.

"That money stays in the area," he said. "It benefits everybody."

With its limited funds, the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging has promised 50 cents of its federal money for every $1 that local counties devote to the program.

Lenawee and Hillsdale counties each allocated $2,000, which gets each of them $1,000 in federal funds. With that $3,000 budget and their limit of $20 in coupons per senior, each county will be able to give coupons to 150 seniors. There are thought to be thousands who would qualify.

Awareness might be one of the most important things produced by the program that Michigan calls Senior Project FRESH, which stands for Farm Resources Expanding and Supporting Health.

Michigan extension agents will be leading cooking demonstrations - using little-known fruits and vegetables such as kale - that are specifically geared to seniors at farm markets that accept the coupons.

Sherri King, health and wellness specialist with Senior Project FRESH, hopes that's one of the answers to improving Michigan's standings in studies she has seen that rank the state as one of the worst in the country for obesity and lack of fruits and vegetables in seniors' diets.

"I've been in meeting after meeting, and we just can't come up with any reason for it, because we have so many farmers markets around," she said.

Michigan ranks high in the nation in fruit and vegetable production. The senior farmers market program was designed with a dual purpose: to encourage better nutrition among low-income seniors and to encourage local production of fruits and vegetables.



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