Note: This story appears in the Tuesday, June 18 newspaper on Page A1.
Residents in Athens County and beyond now have greater access to cheap fruits and vegetables in their communities.
That is thanks to a new partnership between Produce Perks Midwest and Rural Action, which seeks to address the issue of food insecurity and “food deserts” in Southeast Ohio.
Fresh fruit and vegetables have been added to the stock at various retail stores throughout Athens County and the surrounding area. Rural Action calls these locations “Country Fresh Stops.” The list includes Cee-Dee Handy Mart in Chauncey; Hopewell Health Centers in Coolville; the Nelsonville Emporium; Ron’s Auto and Convenience Store in Chesterhill; and the OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital cafeteria in Athens (on Tuesdays only).
Three additional Country Fresh Stops are special in that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients can earn free food by purchasing produce there. The Produce Perks incentive allows for a dollar-to-dollar match on purchases of fruits and vegetables at these three locations, up to $10.
The three special Country Fresh Stops for SNAP recipients are at Coonskin Crossing in Amesville and the Shrivers Pharmacy locations in Nelsonville and Zanesville.
Additionally, SNAP recipients get a dollar-to-dollar match up to $20 on produce purchases at the Athens Farmers Market.
“To give (SNAP recipients) access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a big piece of our mission,” said Tom Redfern, Rural Action’s director of sustainable agriculture and forestry.
Though there are incentives for SNAP recipients at some locations, Country Fresh Stops offer produce for sale to all customers.
This local program is part of a broader effort to bring fresh food to areas throughout the state. According to the 2018 Impact Report from Produce Perks, the program has benefited over 12,000 SNAP consumers and generated over $800,000 in healthy food sales in Ohio. This includes sales at both retail stores and farmers markets.
There are more than 1 million SNAP recipients in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Carrie Carson, the food partners access coordinator at The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACENet), helps connect these food access programs to local businesses in the county by asking them to go “above and beyond” their normal activities.
“For Produce Perks to have community-based nonprofits assisting has been really beneficial because we’re able to bring the existing relationships and knowledge of the communities that we work in,” Carson said.
Organizers say the initiative benefits small businesses and local farmers, along with residents.
Ana Bird, the statewide program manager for Produce Perks, said she has also received a large amount of enthusiasm from the businesses involved in this program like Shrivers Pharmacy and Coonskin Crossing. Bird stated that these businesses are “100 percent invested” to serving their communities by providing these benefits to SNAP recipients.
The ability to offer a dollar-to-dollar match amount is thanks to a federal grant. The funding, courtesy the U.S. Department of Agriculture, initially targeted metropolitan areas but has since expanded to more rural places such as Athens County.
Organizers want to expand the program further, which they say would require support from Ohio legislators crafting the state budget.
“What we’ve been doing consciously is really looking at expanding into more counties within Ohio, especially into rural areas,” Bird said. “We find in rural areas that there may not be a strong farmers market or that the farmers markets may not have the authorization to accept SNAP.”
The improved food access is a welcome development for Athens County, which in February 2019 recorded the highest poverty rate (30.2 percent) in the state of Ohio, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency. The county also has the highest food insecurity rate in Ohio at 19.3 percent, according to Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization.
Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
“We are actively recruiting new store owners to participate in the program in the next couple of years,” Bird said. “We’re mindful about how quickly we expand into retail settings because grocery stores can go through a lot of incentive dollars and we are limited by budget.”