Blacksburg's Farmer's Market recently received a $10,000 grant that will be used to explore how the market can better serve the needs of low-income residents of the area.
Friends of the Farmers Market plans to conduct a series of studies in order to help improve the accessibility of locally-produced foods to those with limited access.
The surveys will be funded by the $10,000 Sustainable Communities Innovation grant, awarded to them by the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
Ellen Stewart, coordinator for FFM, and Jessica Schultz, a member of Americorps Vista and VT Engage, are spearheading the project.
“The agriculture in this region is thriving, but we know we’re not reaching the low income people, so I think we found a feasible way to at least study why we’re not reaching them,” Schultz said.
Because Montgomery County is largely rural, it is likely to have what Schultz calls “food desert” zones.
This means that, over time, affordable and accessible food tends to move closer to those people who live in a higher income bracket, leaving certain areas of the county “arid” of fresh produce and groceries. Because many lower income residents tend to buy property where the land is cheaper, which are the more rural areas, they then have to travel further and further just to get to the grocery store.
Although the issue of food security has received increased awareness over the past few years as a recognized need in the Appalachian region, efforts to stem the issue are limited.
Currently, programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which functions like food stamps for the Blacksburg farmers market and other participating organizations in the Montgomery County area, are widely used. SNAP participation rates were measured at 8,000 people in January.
The wide use of SNAP led Schultz and Stewart to believe it was time for a form of greater action, and so they drew up a plan of action and applied for the grant.
The grant money will be used to first develop surveys which will assess the needs of low income shoppers. It is necessary to know whether those consumers are not being reached through marketing tactics, location or price, Schultz said.
“We have a really strong connection with local farmers and we have really strong connections with the customer base,” Stewart said. “FFM’s connection with Tech also really strengthens our case.”