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Farmers' market voucher program helps families and seniors eat well

$750,000 investment buoys provincial program aimed at promoting healthy eating



Whistlerites who access a provincially funded farmer's market voucher program are getting a little additional support this summer.

The Farmers' Market Nutrition Coupon Program provides vouchers to low-income seniors and families and is administered locally by the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS).

It's a "very easy program to get behind" because it supports both local farmers and vulnerable populations, explained Sara Jennings, food bank coordinator

at WCSS.

The popular program, which has bi-partisan support in Victoria, distributes vouchers to participants, which essentially work like cash at participating farmers' markets.

This year, the province is increasing funding to the program by $750,000.

"It helps low-income people at a time when we have high inequality in our province and our government has given a focus to poverty reduction," said Health Minister Adrian Dix in announcing the funding increase last month.

As a result, the total amount of spending for each participant will increase from $240 to $336 for the duration of the program, which runs from June 11 to Oct. 31.

That works out to $21 a week in spending for participants, a boost from $15.

While Jennings acknowledged that that's not enough for a week's worth of groceries, the weekly vouchers can be saved up and are a big help, she said.

According to the province, the program currently has just over 3,700 participants. Funded by the Ministry of Health, it also boasts an educational component.

To take part, participants must attend workshops on food nutrition.

The WCSS currently has funding for 30 participants—and this year its program is at full capacity.

Workshops in the past have taught gardening, provided "quick and easy" meal ideas, and taught participants the fundamentals of canning foods.

Jennings said that Whistler participants tend to have a high understanding of nutrition, and the plan with the workshops this year is to highlight regional cuisines.

The program is designed to be flexible and accommodate busy schedules, explained Jennings.

"We want people to try to take part in the program as best they can," she said.

Among local farmers, the program is celebrated.

"As a farmer, I think the program is amazing, and it's incredibly helpful to our sales," said Kerry McCann of Laughing Crow Organics.

A proponent of eating and selling locally, she enjoys trading recipes with program participants.

"I think (the program has) brought a few more people to the market that might not ordinarily think to shop there," she said.

McCann is also currently in discussions with WCSS about bringing the group to her farm, to offer a firsthand look at how produce is grown in the beautiful Pemberton Valley.

Chris Quinlan, manager of Whistler's farmers' market, also heralds the program.

On a social level, he thinks it makes a "ridiculous" amount of sense, as it strengthens "food literacy" across the province.

In total, the program puts around $9,000 into the pockets of farmers that sell at the Whistler farmers' market, he said.

Farmers, he added, often go the extra mile with people paying with the vouchers—and they sometimes even go so far as to throw in a little extra food, as they know it's going to a good place.

"If a farmer sees that you have that coupon, they're going to spend more time with you," said Quinlan.


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