By Dan Heyman, WVNS
Advocates for tiny federal programs for farmers’ markets say they could grow big results for West Virginia farmers, communities, seniors and low-income families – if Congress would pass a farm bill.
Jeffrey O’Hara, an economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who studied the markets, says they give a surprisingly big boost to rural economies, and to people’s health.
He says studies have found people who go to them eat more fruits and vegetables, for many reasons.
“Consumers are able to talk to farmers,” O’Hara points out. “Food at farmers’ markets can taste a little bit better, the food might be a little bit fresher.”
O’Hara says small incentives have boosted farmers’ market produce for seniors and low-income mothers and children.
But he says those programs have expired, even though they cost less than a $100 million – pocket change in the farm bill, which O’Hara says has a lot of waste.
“Those are rounding errors, especially when you see farm subsidies sent to people living in New York City high rises,” he says.
Gridlock in Congress has killed several attempts at a farm bill this year.
O’Hara says that along with improving people’s diets, farmers’ markets have been proven to boost income for farmers and rural communities.
He says a few years ago researchers looked at 35 West Virginia markets and found they helped farmers keep more of the profit, which stayed in the area.
“Farmers are going to be paying taxes locally,” he says. “They might be advertising locally. They might be more likely to buy inputs locally, from local suppliers. And they might be more likely to hire labor locally.”
Republicans in the House have objected to continuing SNAP – formerly food stamps – under the farm bill. They maintain the government should not pay for nutrition assistance for low-income families.
But O’Hara says with cardiovascular disease running nearly twice the national average in some West Virginia counties, farmers’ markets can have a big impact with tiny investments.
“Maybe at the order of $50,000,” he says. “Do advertising and promotion to make sure people are aware of the market. Maybe they need money to have an electronic benefits transfer machine so that SNAP and WIC benefits can be redeemed at the farmers’ market.”