Janel Rose, health educator with the Barton County Health Department, is laying the groundwork for a local food system assessment, and received valuable feedback from farmers market vendors Thursday night, Oct. 20, at an end-of-season conversation at the Barton County Health Department. The group met on the heels of two other community connections dinners held at Hoisington and Great Bend three weeks ago.
The turnout at the first two conversations included representatives from the Barton County and Hoisington Food Banks, the Hungry Hearts Soup Kitchen, Barton County Health Department’s Senior Check program, the local farmers markets, and Great Bend and Hoisington school districts. Many interested citizens of Barton County also attended. The school food service programs for Great Bend and Hoisington shared what they’ve learned about communities through participation in free and reduced price lunches and breakfasts and backpack programs.
Rose explained these indicators show there is a need, and that is why she is working on the assessment.
“We need to be certain that everyone has access to healthy food in this county,” she said. “We need to know what we are already doing well so we keep doing it, and what we could be doing better.”
Farmers market findings
Marketers talked about what went well in 2016, and made plans for 2017. With high tunnel farming becoming established in the area, they decided the market would open a few weeks earlier in 2017, allowing a wider variety of offerings to be made available. Vegetables like beets, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as early tomatoes could be sold. For the last two years, the Summer Street Stroll Farmers Market, held Thursday afternoons at the south side of the Courthouse Square, started the first weekend in June. By that time, many of these crops are past their prime, Bruce Swob, a vendor, said. There was also talk of what would need to be in place to extend the market a few more weeks into the fall.
Rose shared the good news that the market had signed a five-year contract with the USDA to continue the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. It has been a successful program nationwide, she said, so she is fairly confident it will continue to be around for some time. The growers at Thursday night’s meeting were pleased. Because the market is registered with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, they can accept the checks senior shoppers give them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at the market. The checks are provided to qualified applicants through the Barton County Health Department. For some of the sellers, the checks accounted for half or more of the purchases made at their stands this past summer.
One unexpected side effect, however, was not good. Some sellers reported they had heard that there were potential customers who did not shop because they thought the market was for seniors only.
During the second half of the meeting, Rose asked the group to jot down ideas on sticky notes about the food system in Barton County,what is being done well and what needs to be addressed. They placed them on the wall in a few categories that included successes, challenges, opportunities, and big ideas.
A common theme was the senior checks had been a success, and vendor relations with the Summer Street Stroll market were good.
And while the availability of fresh produce is higher in the summer time due to the markets, more needs to be done to create a supply during the other three months of the year. Also, there are communities in Barton County that do not have farmers markets, and some ideas were discussed about how to address that need.
One seller also noted there could be more ethnic diversity at the market. Both sellers and shoppers, she added. And more varieties of vegetables and fruits may help prompt this, another added.
Lack of cooking skills pointed to
A big barrier that was mentioned several times in several ways had to do with the habits of customers. Many young people do not eat vegetables, and many do not know how or do not choose to cook from scratch. Today’s lifestyle doesn’t include many meals at home either, it was noted.
The challenges here also prompted many responses for opportunities. Farmers market sellers could do more to provide information on how to prepare produce, offer simple recipes, or even on occasion provide samples so shoppers could familiarize themselves with flavors.
Results could drive policy
The findings of this local food assessment could result in informed policy creation throughout the county. An example of what that may look like can be found at Clara Barton Hospital in Hoisington. In 2015, the hospital signed a pledge to adopt the policies of the Kansas Hospital Association’s Healthy Kansas Hospitals program. Staff members formed a wellness committee which has implemented several new initiatives there.
The goal of those policies was to help staff and employees of the hospital live out the vision of bringing health to patients and the community. Better choices at the cafeteria were needed, so the menu was overhauled and now includes nutritionally balanced meals. Heart healthy breads were introduced, and deep-fat fried foods were eliminated. Alternatives to sugary carbonated beverages are now plentiful, with fruit and herb infused water available for free at the cafeteria every day.
Rose foresees other businesses could follow suit, requiring healthy snacks to be available in vending machines or cafeterias. School districts, too, could find ways to ensure healthier options are available at concession stands at ball games, she added. Hoisington High School leads the way, she said, having offered healthy wraps at the concessions stand at their football game last Friday. But simpler steps could be taken too. Picture fruits or nuts alongside packages of Skittles and Snickers bars.