Andrew Pittman is legally blind, but if he leans over and gets close enough to vegetable displays, he can tell cucumbers from eggplants, peaches from tomatoes.
The 62-year-old Spotsylvania County man also knows a bargain when he sees it.
Pittman takes advantage of Virginia Fresh Match, a program that lets him double his SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, at Fredericksburg-area farmers markets. He can spend $30 and get tokens for $60 worth of produce.
“I am on a fixed income. I’m trying to eat healthy, but organic is so expensive,” he said, as he walked around the parking lot of Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center’s market, held every Wednesday from 2-6 p.m. “Since this is homegrown, I can support the local people, and I get the bargain. Doubling my money, that’s great to me.”
About 31,000 people in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford consistently lack the food to maintain a healthy, active life. They’re considered “food insecure” by the United States Department of Agriculture.
As local churches, agencies and nonprofits step up to help, they’re adding healthier options to the menu.
“Pantries typically give canned goods,” said Elizabeth Borst, a Spotsylvania woman who works with several food programs. “You’re giving the most vulnerable people in the community the worst offerings.”
Borst is the executive director of Virginia Community Food Connections, which works with nine regional farmers markets to provide the fresh match. She gets funding from grants and health foundations to cover costs. She also directs the Fredericksburg Fresh Food Forum, a group focused on pinpointing hunger problems down to the neighborhood level—and finding solutions.
SNAP clients can take their debit cards to farmers markets and spend up to $30 per visit. They get two bags of tokens; red ones must be spent on fruits, vegetables or plants to grow them while blue ones also can be spent on meat or cheese, eggs or baked goods—any market item allowed by SNAP. No hot foods or single servings can be purchased.
Each token is worth a dollar, and vendors can’t give change. When Pittman’s purchase totaled $13.50, Luis Gutierrez of Little Green Farm in Thornburg tossed in a garlic clove to make up the difference.
Between 2016 and 2017, the use of SNAP benefits at regional farmers markets went up about 25 percent, Borst said. Last year, 1,583 transactions amounted to almost $70,000 in benefit sales for local farmers.
The fresh match has made a difference for Pittman, a former paralegal and truck driver who didn’t know he had diabetes until he lost his eyesight almost five years ago. He’s also had a kidney transplant, so he’s trying to improve his health by eating better.
“I’m slowly chipping away at it,” he said.
A FRESH PRESCRIPTION
Last year, the Moss Free Clinic gave patients who most often ended up in the emergency room a “fruit and vegetable prescription,” a voucher for $10 of produce at the farmers market.
The grant that provided the funding has ended, but the clinic, which serves about 2,000 uninsured residents in the region, continues to look for ways to reduce diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol by improving people’s diets.
“I think that’s true for the general population, and for this population, even more so because they don’t understand how they can buy these foods instead of junk food and be economical,” said Carolyne Ashton, education program coordinator. “Lots of them have a hard time cooking, and there are more barriers that get in the way of them eating the right foods.”
Many other programs try to put fresh food in the hands of those who aren’t used to eating it. The Rappahannock Area Health District started “Eat Green Fredericksburg” in June after identifying food insecurity as a leading health challenge.
At weekly clinics, those who receive Women with Infant Children benefits also get coupons for $10 of free produce at the Fredericksburg Farmers Market.
About 100 coupons have been issued, and RAHD Director Brooke Rossheim hopes the introduction leads to more servings of fresh food.
The RAHD and the Doctor Yum Project, led by popular pediatrician Nimaili Fernando, also give WIC families in the city, Caroline and Spotsylvania produce packs with samples of fruits and vegetables. Families can get the bags for six weeks and refill them, up to three times, at local farmers markets.
Dr. Yum offers tips on how to wash, store and use the four fruits or vegetables in recipes.
“It’s really just trying to give people as much hands-on information as possible,” she said.
She does the same with her clients. When children come to the office with abdominal pain or constipation, she assumes they’re not getting the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily—because half the kids in Virginia are not.
“Families can be surprised when you tell them this pain may be caused by what your child is eating, that their diet is not working for them,” the pediatrician said. “Parents want the best for their kids, and more often than not, they’re willing to come up with solutions and try new ideas.”
Linda Carter of Spotsylvania grew up in an affluent town in New Jersey, where her church was one of the first to open its doors to homeless families. Youth members took sandwiches to the poor in Newark and New York City, but her work with the impoverished couldn’t prepare her for what she found in Virginia.
“What I saw the first 65 years of my life compares to nothing I have seen since moving to Fredericksburg in 2009,” Carter said.
At weekly dinners for the needy at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, Carter was shocked by the number of people with poor teeth and chronic health problems. Volunteers began to put more fresh foods on the menu, which led to the creation of The Table, the area’s premier farm-to-pantry operation.
The Table raises about $50,000 a year through private donations to provide fresh food, along with boxed and canned items, to 160 to 200 people each week, Carter said. The ministry pays the lion’s share, about $40,000, to several farmers who bring their produce to St. George’s, where it’s stored in the ministry’s refrigerators. (It used to be stashed under the pews.)
Last year, The Table distributed more than 57,000 pounds of local produce, and volunteers set up tables in a giant U-shape so “shoppers” can select what they want.
“One of the first things people lose is their right of choice,” said volunteer Rob Tebbutt. “They go to a pantry and take what they’re given. Here, they can pick Cheerios or oatmeal, and it gives them a choice. It’s a little boost to their self-esteem, and it’s nice to see.”
Colette Holloman is 75 and relies on Social Security and a small retirement pension. Much of that goes to keeping a roof over her head; she pays $1,070 a month for a small Fredericksburg home that’s divided into three apartments.
“I make too much to qualify for anything but don’t make enough to do the things I need,” she said.
Holloman usually has a child or two in tow when she visits The Table. She babysits for friends and often keeps her grandchildren—two have been there this summer. The food pantry helps stretch her budget and keep the youngsters, who range in age from 5 to 8, well-fed.
“The cherry tomatoes that are different colors? The children love those,” she said. “They say they’re just like candy.”
Holloman has worked in department stores and groceries and also spent 40 years directing a child development center in Washington. She makes sure the kids read an hour every day they’re with her and that manners are observed. When one of the girls got fidgety while waiting at St. George’s, Holloman was quick to correct her.
“Excuse me, little girl,” she said. “Conduct yourself the way you’re supposed to.”
The grandmother mixes pieces of fresh peppers and onions with canned tomatoes for spaghetti sauce. Slices of bread, previously obtained from The Table and frozen for later use, complement the meal along with bowls of salad.
When The Table offers bananas that are a little soft or a zillion zucchinis, she turns them into bread. When melons are abundant, Holloman cuts them up “and we eat it for a couple days,” she said.
“I guess I’ve gotten used to utilizing everything.”