It's tough for families to accommodate to the typically steep prices of local food.

Growing beans and harvesting vegetables is Ronda Clark’s passion. She decided to step away from her professional job — the one she went to college for — and start her own farm where the 48-year-old can cultivate squash, beans, okra and potatoes on her own farm, Blackberry Sage Farms in Amesville, and sell to the Athens Farmers Market.

She wanted to be a farmer since she was a child on her father’s farm in Michigan. He pushed her to go to school and get her rough, dirt-stained hands out of the profession she knew — farming.

“It was considered this thing that people in poverty did,” Clark said.

Stalks, stems and leaves sprout on every available inch of Clark’s 59-acre property — and, with permission, some of her neighbor’s property — to sell the fruits they bear at the Athens Farmers Market. But like thousands of Athens County residents, she receives about $250 in food benefits to afford feeding her husband and three daughters each month.

Athens County residents received almost $19 million in aid from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known commonly as SNAP, to help put food on the table every night. Clark, however, is among the few who are using their food benefits to buy locally from the Athens Farmers Market.

The market only received $26,064 in sales bought by those with food stamps last year, which equates to less than one percent of the total benefits given out in 2014.

The Nelsonville Farmers Market started offering the program during their summer-month market in 2014, but only one customer used the service last year, purchasing $9 of fresh produce. The market was unable to get their benefit transfer machine to work until the end of the market season, said Julie Garner, director of the Nelsonville market.

The Athens market’s manager Kip Parker said he believes the low number of food stamps spent at the farmers market is a result of the drop in total food stamps given out nationally between 2013 and 2014.  

The farmers market lost about $10,000 in revenue and 173 transactions coming from food benefits customers between 2013 and 2014, a 28 percent dip in profits between the years.

The amount of food benefits distributed to Athens County residents took a similar dip, dropping 9.4 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to data from Athens County Job and Family Services. Cuts to federal funding of SNAP caused Athens County to reduce its food benefit payments from a total of $20.9 million in 2013 to $18.9 million last year.

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For Athens County families on benefits, these cuts translated to an average loss of $20 per month, said Arian Smedley, Community Relations Coordinator for Athens County JFS.

“Frequently, people are running out (of food stamps) within two weeks,” Smedley said. “The brunt of that is felt upon food pantries and free meal sites.”

About eight years ago, the previous director of the Athens County JFS, Jack Frech, created the option for food stamp recipients to purchase local food at their farmers markets in Athens and Nelsonville in order to make sure everyone in the county can get access to fresh produce, Smedley said.

“Having access to fresh fruit is important, especially in the current economy where caseloads are dropping and current benefits are dropping, it’s providing a pretty vital resource,” Smedley said.

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For the poorest residents of Athens County, the barriers to accessing fresh and local food are not solved with the farmers market program. After receiving a grant to do so, the Athens County Food Pantry started sending some of its clients home with fresh food that can last: meat, dairy, potatoes or apples, said pantry Board Member Barbara Stout. But some of their recipients can’t cook or store those goods: their “stove” is a hot plate, or their “refrigerator” is a cooler filled with ice.

The pantry has to be particular with the food they distribute. Some people will not know how to cook or eat certain vegetables, so kale or eggplant would most likely end up in the garbage rather than on a plate.

“You can’t use a fresh vegetable and turn it into something nice to eat with a hot plate,” Stout said.

Getting to the grocery store is another issue. With a gallon of gas costing about $2.59, the drive from Coolsville to Job and Family Services’ office north of Athens can stop a family from picking up a three-day emergency food supply box provided by the Food Pantry, Stout said.

Driving to shop at the Athens Farmers Market, or even the Wal-Mart in Athens? Out of the question.

“It’s not a question of people being too lazy or whatever to eat healthy,” Stout said. “It’s a skill and it’s a luxury to some extent.”  

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The market gets regular SNAP customers every week, but summer and fall months are when Parker sees the most. From January to October of 2014, the market saw a 66 percent increase in the number of transactions using food benefits, from 40 to 118 transactions, before it dropped back to a total of 52 transactions in December.

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Anyone with food stamps just has to bring their Ohio Electronic Benefits Transfer card to the market, and Rich Blazier of the Harmony Hollows Farm booth will swipe it like a credit card and give a vendor a number of coins equivalent to the amount of dollars they want to spend.

Bonus coupons attract a higher number of shoppers using food stamps, Parker said. If shoppers do not use all the food stamps allocated to the farmers market by the end of the month, food stamp users get a coupon for a few extra coins when they spend $5 or $10 of their allocated food stamps at the market.

“When we do that, we see people we’ve never seen there,” Parker said.

Though technical difficulties prevented food benefit recipients from shopping at the Nelsonville Farmers Market, the director Julie Garner said the market needs to make the option more known to its customers.

Garner said she has purchased ads on Nelsonville’s local television station to advertise the program to spread the word for the upcoming market season, which starts May 9. She said she does not expect the machine will give her any trouble this year.

“This year we’re going to go really big into promoting (the program),” Garner said. “I think it’s wonderful that it gives the opportunity for people who might not otherwise be able to afford fresh produce and local produce.”

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To receive food benefits, a family member has to contact Athens County Job and Family Services online or in person, and they get a caseworker to evaluate their family size, age and condition of members, and monthly income and expenses. From those factors, the caseworker will calculate how much a family should receive in benefits, Smedley said.

Those receiving food benefits have to be under 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is a set income determined by the federal government. That means that a family of four would fall under the poverty level if household income is less than $24,250 per year.  Food stamps are meant to cover about 75 percent of a family’s spending on food, Smedley said. Some individuals in Athens County receive as few as $21, $16, or $6 a month, as determined by his or her caseworker, according to caseload reports from job and family services

A “thrifty” adult man should spend about $188.20 on food a month, and a thrifty woman would spend $166.50, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cost of Food at Home report for February.

The agency explains the farmers market program — as well as the need to purchase healthy food — on its website and to benefits users, but Smedley said job and family services’ focuses on making sure that people in the county do not go to bed hungry.

“I think we’re just happy they have enough to eat, honestly, that’s our main priority,” Smedley said. “We have to give away food boxes at our agency so people have enough to eat.”

Parker said he remembers the amount of food his one son could go through in a day, so he understands why a family with 14 kids — the largest-sized family on food benefits in Athens County — could struggle to shop at the Farmers Market throughout the year.

A loaf of French or sourdough bread from the local and organic Crumbs Bakery may have been baked that day, but at $3.25, it costs more than three loaves of Wal-Mart's Price First enriched white or wheat bread, the bare-bones brand that the box store can sell for $0.84.

The price and availability of farmers market fruits and vegetables relies on the seasons, but the end result is never consistent. Lettuce might overproduce, or a crop of potatoes might get blight, so farmers would have to change their prices accordingly. Grocery stores, on the other hand, try to consistently carry the same products, though they drop and raise prices seasonally as well.

Production and processing also adds costs to farmers market food. For instance, meat vendors are required by the Athens Farmers Market to raise the livestock they intend to sell for food, and the state requires them to transport their animals to and from one of the approved processing facilities. No Athens County meat-processing plants are listed in the USDA’s Meat, Egg and Poultry Inspection Directory, which is the approved list for processing. Some of the closer processing plants are in Jackson and Lancaster, more than 40 miles from Athens in different directions. Those costs bring Arcadian Acres Farm to charge $8 for a pound of pork chops, where the Wal-Mart on the other side of State Street sells chops for $3.98 a pound.

The cost of farmers market fruits and vegetables dips when the produce is either slightly battered but still edible — called “grade B” — or after farmers overproduce at the peak of their seasons. But rare and out-of-season fruit from the market can cost more than their grocery store counterparts.

“If you’re really price conscious, and you have six mouths to feed, you’re going to find the least expensive,” Parker said. “What we have is fresher and better quality, so it’s a tradeoff.”

Clark struggles to price her farm products, balancing what people want to pay and how much money she needs to bring home. She’ll sell a cup of beans as seed or ready to eat, such as her favorite, the “Black and White Calypso beans,” for $4 per bag. Clark has Wal-Mart's one-pound bags of beans beat in freshness and variety, she says, and she sells more than 20 types of beans. Walmart on the other hand only offers the standards, such as black, navy and lima beans. But the giant retailer can charge less for dried beans, with most costing under $2 a bag.

Clark wishes she could bring home more money at the end of the market.

“With all the work I put into them and all the time, they’re worth like $12, $15 a bag, but I can’t charge that,” Clark said. “Most people would charge maybe $3.”

Clark said she hopes to reach a peak profit of $12,000 per year at the market.

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But the cost of production could be a barrier to those who would rather pay less than a dollar for a can of beans or corn at a chain store like Wal-Mart on East State Street.

When she has to shop for her five-person household, Shelby Whitcraft choses Wal-Mart because she knows she’ll be able to find everything she needs in one stop. She recently retired from the Athens Wal-Mart she shops at weekly, and she said she believes she could support herself and her husband on a $100 per week grocery budget. But Whitcraft’s daughter and two kids moved back in to share the house, so Whitcraft often has to shop to feed five. Her daughter can’t offer a lot of help with the bills, but she receives food stamps, which take some of the cost off feeding five people, Whitcraft said. She shops at Wal-Mart for the prices, which will allow her to splurge on extra lunch meat or a carton of ice cream.

“No matter where you get (food), it’s going to be expensive,” Whitcraft said.

For Chelsea Hindenach, feeding her son fresh and locally-grown food in his developing years was essential. The farmers market vendor wholly believes in local foods – she makes her philosophy clear the minute a customer walks up to her purple food truck. Customers order off a white board, and Hindenach will rush into the truck to make a veggie scramble, or warm up a focaccia roll with squash from another farmers market vendor, Sassafras Farm in New Marshfield.

“You know the farmer, you know it’s clean, it’s not been pre-poisoned for your pleasure,” Hindenach said.

Her desire to shop locally forced her to get creative with her money – about $300 a month in food benefits. She no longer gets those benefits, but as a single mother, she had to support her son on a part-time salary from working at Village Bakery and later as a personal chef.

“I could have worked full time, but I wouldn’t have been able to see my kid, so that’s not okay,” Hindenach said.

She would buy a high percentage of food from the farmers market — meat, most of her produce, eggs — but to do so, she would buy “seconds” produce, which are marked and bruised but still fresh. She would buy berries and tomatoes in season and in bulk and bring them home to can.

“It’s a learning curve,” Hindenach said. “You have to get to know the farmers and learn how to shop.”

To increase the number of food stamps customers the market sees, the farmers market board is working with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow them to double the amount of money benefits recipients use at the market for a year, said Leslie Schaller, director of programming for ACEnet. She has submitted the grant but is not sure when or if the USDA funding will come through.

“The customers really come from all over Southeast Ohio,” Schaller said. “It creates much more opportunities for healthy food in Ohio.”

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Though her father warned her of the financial troubles that farmers face, Ronda Clark returned to the farm because healthy food was always her passion. The past month has been difficult for her family financially, Clark said, because the family lost its food benefits due to a clerical error on her part, and she needs to contact her caseworker and reenroll. At the same time, they need to replace the roof on their house in Amesville.

She knows the farmers at the Athens Farmers Market from working alongside them selling her wares every Saturday, and she’ll spend $40 of her food benefits there each month because she trusts her colleagues for meat and leafy greens. The only things she will buy from a regular store are nuts, oil, flour and dark chocolate candy bars for her daughters.

The crops Clark sells are “heirloom,” meaning the seeds are picked from last year’s successful crops and carry the parent crops’ traits. Her beans have their own family tree: one variety “Barb’s Red Eye,” is named for her deceased neighbor who saved her father’s beans and passed them along to Clark.  

Clark home-schools her daughters with text books and online programs, but she believes the most important lessons she can teach come from the field: coaxing melons out of the earth, turning squash seeds into a snack, and taking care of your body by knowing what you put in it. excellent

“It’s got a lot of benefits that you can’t put money on,” Clark said.

dk123111@ohio.edu