Great Barrington — Abbie Lombard and her son, Charlie, undoubtedly look forward to Saturday mornings come summer. The pair attend the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market nearly every week, and their routine has been tweaked to a science: They make their way, from vendor to vendor, fists bulging with wooden “tokens” to be exchanged for most anything their hearts desire—from strawberries, blueberries and sweet cherries to sugar snap peas, string beans and broccoli. And there’s always the promise of pain au chocolat to sweeten the deal for the 4-year-old. “I love the ability to get fresh, local produce for me and my kid all while supporting local businesses and knowing the food has been grown in a good way. It’s so important to me,” said the single mother of one from Sandisfield. Lombard is just one of more than 100 families market managers Kate Burke and Bridgette Stone hope to welcome to Saturday’s Women, Infants and Children check distribution event, beginning at 9 a.m. at the market.
“Barriers exist with most local food institutions,” Stone explained. “Anywhere you are able to access locally produced organic foods, [there exists a perception that] it’s going to be expensive,” she added, which leads to the all-important question: How do we break down these barriers? From Stone’s perspective, it begins with giving everyone the choice to make decisions about what they eat, regardless of income. Saturday’s event, which is free and open to the public, is the first time WIC farmers’ market checks will be distributed at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, effectively reducing the distance between farmers and consumers. It is a small step aimed at creating residual ripples throughout the community, from which everyone benefits.
“The markets are friendly; they are for everyone. We hope our clients will see us there and trust us,” said Mary Feuer, assistant director of CHP Family Services, which administers WIC in South County. Feuer also noted that the redemption rate in the past has not been as high as she would like it to be. “We’d like to see more and more [families] use it. We don’t want the program to go away,” she added. This year’s WIC farmers’ market checks will be issued in the amount of $25 per eligible client. And the good news doesn’t stop there: Through the Market Match program, all WIC checks will be doubled.
“Through our Market Match program, we provide a dollar-for-dollar match to WIC farmers’ market checks,” Stone explained. “[Which] makes it possible for WIC shoppers to get fresh produce, eggs, meat and cheese at the market to feed their families.” Stone, in her second year on the job, is working to address the perception of what it means to be a community gathering place, one open to families of all income brackets, which means reducing the stigma surrounding those families who receive WIC benefits. “[We are] working on this, always, to break down these barriers,” Stone shared in a recent phone interview. Saturday’s event will feature special kids’ activities, including Roger the Jester, kids’ cooking demos and face painting. It is this type of environment Feuer hopes will encourage families to see the myriad benefits in a trip to the farmers’ market: “It’s not only a place to get fresh fruit and vegetables, but it’s also a Saturday happening with your kids,” a sentiment Lombard can attest to.
“The main thing about the Great Barrington market is the amount of [options] available for WIC and SNAP recipients,” Lombard explained. “There are so many options, which makes it really, really easy to get a bit of everything,” she added in a nod to the local eggs, meat and cheese available in addition to produce. In fact, after an hour or so in the sun, the Lombards were laden with fresh fruit and veggies for the week. “I would get more if my garden at home were not so prolific,” she said. And it’s fun. “I honestly feel like I’m playing a game of Monopoly; it’s awesome!” Lombard is talking about the wooden tokens, valued at $5 each, that WIC and SNAP recipients use in place of cash for their market purchases. And the best part? “I can accumulate the coins; it’s not like I have to use them all in a hurry. I can save them from week to week, as they are not dated. I still have some from last year.” The coins have become somewhat of a staple at the market, with most vendors using green paper pint containers to hold their stashes. I asked Lombard how it felt to use the coins when many other shoppers are using cash. In short, she was nonplussed: “[It’s] not a big deal at all. Seems like its part and parcel of the whole market—a fast, smooth system they’ve got going for us,” she added, noting, “the people who run the marked are fantastic!” Stone added to the conversation, noting that “coins keep it simple for our farmers and our families.”
At the end of the day, that translates to accessibility for a family who might not otherwise be able to afford the luxury of shopping at the farmers’ market in the first place. Lombard elaborated: “Technically, yes, [I could afford to shop there] because I get SNAP as well, which makes [the market] affordable. The WIC farmers’ market check is just a one-off—once a summer—so obviously it does not go as far as the $50 I can get every week with SNAP. But it’s still really helpful.”
The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market is partnering with Southern Berkshire WIC and Volunteers in Medicine for this event. Translators will be available for non-English-speaking families and there will be support for families who are first-time shoppers at the market. Funds for doubling come from community sponsors and Market Match sponsors including Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire Food Co-op and Lee Bank. In short? All shoppers, regardless of whether or not they receive WIC benefits, will have full access to the market, a step that both encourages and incentivizes families to attend the market and use their checks. “It’s good for farmers, and it’s good for families,” Stone said, which means everyone wins. “It is a space that is for the community created by the community. We want people to know that they are not only welcome but they also have choices and options in the food that they choose to nourish their families with [and the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market] is one place where they can make those choices in a very supportive environment.”
NOTE: WIC checks will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible families who currently receive WIC benefits. The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market also doubles senior checks from the Council on Aging.