The Family Nutrition Program’s Food Security Project

This post was contributed by Meredith Ledlie Johnson:

As a bit of background for talking about the Food Security Project, let me explain where it is housed. It is a part of Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program (SNAP-Ed and EFNEP). The Family Nutrition Program’s mission is to teach limited-resource families and youth how to make healthier food choices and become better managers of available food resources for optimal health and growth. Our programs focus on teaching basic nutrition, physical activity, safe food handling, and thrifty food shopping to Virginians of all ages.

The Family Nutrition Program’s Food Security Project began 2 years ago as a response to USDA’s growing interest in farmers markets as a tool to improve access to healthy foods and ultimately increase fruit and vegetable consumption while strengthening local food economies.

Much of the activity taken on by the Food Security Project is in response to the chicken/egg problem I faced when looking at encouraging SNAP recipients to use their benefits at farmers markets in Virginia: should we do consumer education first, and get the SNAP recipients to the market, or should we instead focus on shoring up the ability of farmers markets to be welcoming, usable arenas for our SNAP families to shop in? Many market managers in Virginia are part time or volunteer, or just don’t have expertise in reaching out to low income populations. Additionally, of the 240+ farmers markets in Virginia less than 40 have viable EBT programs. In the end I decided to split the difference and do both.

Ways we support market managers:

  • We created a series of EBT marketing templates as many markets don’t have the budget to design their own. The series has posters, banners, post cards and brochures markets can use for free to advertise that they accept SNAP.
  • We created vendor training tools for market managers to help them train their vendors in how to accept SNAP, why it’s beneficial for them and their community that they do so, and how to create a welcoming atmosphere for SNAP shoppers.
  • We have spoken at many market manager trainings and conferences across Virginia about best practices for EBT/SNAP and serve as a resource where many managers have turned to ask specific questions for their market.

Ways we support SNAP shoppers:

  • We created a “Farmers Market Orientation” lesson that is taught by Family Nutrition Program Assistants to adults receiving nutrition education through our SNAP-Ed and EFNEP programs. This lesson covers what it means to eat seasonally and locally, how to budget when shopping at a farmers market, what you can expect to buy there, and how to use an EBT card at a farmers market.
  • In response to SNAP-Ed participants saying that they are unsure how to cook with whole produce we created the Farmers Market Cooking Coaches program. Volunteers are trained to do healthy, low cost, easy dishes and demonstrate how to cook these at farmers markets that accept SNAP/EBT. So far we have cooking demonstrations taking place in Abingdon, Independence, Wythville, Blacksburg, Roanoke, Vinton, Salem, Harrisonburg, and Richmond. We will be expanding this project using Human Nutrition Foods and Exercise students from Virginia Tech this summer. These students will be piloting using the” Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables” curriculum to teach nutrition at the market along with food demonstrations. We can’t wait to see the response, as this expansion is based off the popular Stellar Markets program in New York City.

We hope that by combining education with access we can begin to achieve the mission of the Food Security Project that all Virginians have access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food. For more information feel free to email Meredith Ledlie Johnson, Community Nutrition Coordinator at meredil@vt.edu.

Meredith Ledlie Johnson is a project associate with the Virginia Family Nutrition Program and manager of the Food Security Project. Meredith also serves on the Virginia Tech academic team of the Appalachian Foodshed Project.