We hear it all the time: Eating organic local food is too expensive.

For many people who feel this way, it’s really a statement about priorities. Some of us just value things like smart phones, vacations, concert tickets or flat-screen TVs more than wholesome meals.

But for other folks, the choice isn’t between Kindles and kale. Rather, it involves much more difficult trade-offs between paying rent and buying medicine or putting nutritious food on the table.

Enter Cultivating Community, an innovative nonprofit that aims to eliminate this costly dilemma.

Starting last week, the organization that works to supply low-income Mainers with access to locally grown food began opening a series of farmers markets throughout Portland.

Not only do these markets sell organic vegetables and fruits grown in Maine, they offer a double-coupon program for people receiving the federal nutrition benefits SNAP, often called food stamps, and WIC, including the program’s farmers market vouchers and fruit and vegetable vouchers.

“Local, organic food is often sold at a price that is out of reach for low-income families,” said Amy Carrington, who heads Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Project. “We’re trying to get over the stigma of low-income families shopping at farmers markets. We feel people should have options for buying more nutritious food that’s locally grown.”

For every $2.50 spent by a customer who participates in one of these programs, he or she receives a coupon for $2.50 that can be used that same day or redeemed at another Cultivating Community market.

The coupon program is paid for by the national Wholesome Wave Foundation, which has funded similar programs at farmers markets around the country.

The city of Portland provided funding to purchase market supplies and the wireless transfer machines, which process the SNAP payments and take credit cards and debit cards.

All the produce sold at the Cultivating Community markets comes from one of the four farm plots the organization manages. They are: the Boyd Street Urban Farm, which is visible from Franklin Street in Portland; a plot at Tidewater Farm in Falmouth; a plot at Turkey Hill Farm in Cape Elizabeth; and a plot at Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon.

Teenagers involved in the Youth Grower program tend the Boyd Street Urban Farm and a plot at Turkey Hill Farm. Each summer, the program immerses a rotating group of teens in the agricultural cycle while allowing them to earn a little pocket money.

The market at the Boyd Street Urban Farm, which opened last week, represents the first time the Youth Growers have sold at a farmers market.

The plots at Tidewater Farm and Packard-Littlefield Farm are tended by recent immigrants and refugees participating in the New American Sustainable Agriculture program. All of them manage their own farm business with marketing assistance from Cultivating Community.

Through the program, the farmers learn about growing in an environment that’s often radically different from their home countries, plus a host of practical skills, such as how to make change with American currency, what vegetables Mainers like to buy and which English phrases are needed to interact with customers.

Right now, 50 families participate in the program.

Hussein Muhktar of Lewiston is both a farmer and one of the program’s outreach coordinators. He moved to the United States from Somalia in 2004.

“The climate is different,” Muhktar said. “The vegetables are different. The way we grow here is different. In Somalia, we grow all season long.”

Muhktar explained that in Somalia, most people, especially in rural areas, were farmers before being driven off the land by conflict.

“They know all about farming,” Muhktar said. “The biggest issue is selling and finding customers.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com