USDA undersecretary visits Downtown Farmers Market, talks nutrition

Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, stopped by the Downtown Farmers Market on Central Square last week. Electronic image by Emmalee C. Torisk.

EMMALEE C. TORISK | METRO MONTHLY STAFF WRITER

After lunching with Wilson Middle School students, Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, stopped by the Downtown Farmers Market on Central Square around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Out of 7,000 farmers markets in the U.S., just 2,000 of them, including the Downtown Farmers Market, have the ability to process electronic benefit transfers, or EBTs. This year, the USDA has been working with state departments of agriculture to “get that number up close to 6,000,” Concannon said.

Thanks to this technology, it’s easier for those who receive government benefits — including those from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as the Food Stamp Program — to have access to healthier food, he said. There are 46 million SNAP participants across the U.S., and 1.7 million of them are Ohioans.

“We want to make sure as much as possible that they not only get sufficient calories, but they get healthy calories. … People at all income levels don’t eat adequately, but poorer people have even more limited choices,” Concannon said. “So, to the extent that we can nudge them in the direction of a farmers market, this is a win for the farmers, but also for those consumers.”

Concannon also emphasized the importance of putting “dollars back into the local community” and creating a reliable customer base for local growers, as well as reducing the distance that food travels from production to consumer.

“The food that was grown here, picked this morning, probably not grown too many miles from here, looks fabulous,” he said. “Why have it trucked all the way across the U.S.? … For us, first and foremost, we’re trying to encourage all Americans to eat healthier.”

Karen O’Malia, a member of the committee that started the original Youngstown farmers market on the grounds of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, said she thinks the USDA, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are “genuinely interested in improving the diet of the American public.”

O’Malia said the farmers market in Youngstown serves a significant purpose: “making fresh, local food available to populations who, certainly, 10 years ago were in the midst of food deserts.”

“Now, there is a little bit more access to better food,” she said.

Rich Berg, treasurer of the Lake-to-River Food Cooperative, said “the main thing is to make people more healthy.” Berg sells his homemade granola and maple syrup, tapped from his family’s Columbiana County farm, at the Downtown Farmers Market.

“It’s kind of just rethinking everything,” Berg said. “Like, why do we have to ship our food 3,000 miles and lose all the nutritional value when we can support local people right here?”

What’s “really nice,” he said, is that the EBT processing technology at farmers markets is “creating awareness that you can get local food from farmers, no matter what your economic background.”

“With the price of food going up, you’re able to come here and get more bang for your buck, and you’re supporting local people, local agriculture,” Berg said.

The Downtown Farmers Market runs on Tuesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. until Oct. 15. For more information, call 330-518-6971.

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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