Hunger rates have grown more rapidly in Maine than any other state over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and between 2014 and 2016, more than 16 percent of Maine households struggled to put food on the table.

The Brunswick Topsham Land Trust Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm is trying to alleviate some of the burden on families struggling to provide fresh, nutrient dense food with Harvest Bucks, a Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets’ SNAP incentive program that doubles the value of food stamp dollars spent on local healthy foods. The federal food stamp program is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“Often times, the least expensive food in the grocery store is not healthy for you,” said Jamison Pacheco with the Merrymeeting Food Council.

The Crystal Spring market has partnered with Maine Harvest Bucks for the last few years, and participation has been growing. In 2018 there were 132 transactions from 28 customers – 14 of whom were new. More than $3,000 SNAP dollars were spent and matched by another $3,000 in Harvest Bucks, compared with $800 in SNAP and $1,400 in Harvest Bucks in 2017, Pacheco said.

Food insecure families and people with low incomes are more vulnerable to poor nutrition, obesity and other health-risk factors, in part because of lack of access to healthy and affordable foods, according to a report from the Food Research and Access Center.

“(Food insecurity) impacts far more people than the community at large realizes,” Pacheco said.

There are plenty of barriers to food access that do not involve how much money a person makes. Sometimes a town like Bowdoin or Bowdoinham may not have a grocery store, she said, so going grocery shopping becomes more complicated. Some elderly people may no longer have a car or do not have access to reliable transportation. But by and large, the cost for fresh, local food remains a burden for many.

Last winter, Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick experienced a “staggering” increase in visitors, serving more than 6,000 people between January and February – a 25 percent increase over February 2018.

“People are having to make tough choices” between rent, heat, food and other costs, Executive Director Karen Parker said.

More than 30 Maine farmers’ markets, including those in Bath, Bowdoinham and Auburn, use this service or others like it, but the organizers in Brunswick are trying to expand their reach, Pacheco said.

Last year they offered free taxi rides to the market for people who said transportation was a barrier, but only one person used the service.

This year, the land trust is partnering with the Curtis Memorial Library to host “market tours” to help break down the barriers for people who do not feel welcome at the farmers’ market.

“We want to help people get past the fear of the unknown,” Pacheco said. “What we hear is that people don’t feel they belong at the market, it’s not for them,” and a sense of shame when a (Women, Infants and Children’s Nutrition Program) voucher or SNAP card slows the line at the cash register.

“The goal is to make coming to the market a little less daunting for first-time visitors, especially those who feel like they may not belong,” land trust officials said in a news release. “These sorts of thoughtful methods increasing accessibility to the best foods and enabling more people to participate in the thriving community that exists at the Farmers’ Market are much needed and much appreciated by the individuals that have come to rely on them. WIC parents are able to purchase fruit that their children love, without which they would be unable to afford.”

There is a market tour Saturday. Those interested are asked to sign up in advance at the Curtis Memorial Library Reference Desk and meet at the information booth at Crystal Spring Farm.

The farmers’ market is open Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. through Oct. 26.

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