This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
When Jaime Huffman gives her children money to spend at the Downtown Saginaw Farmers Market, they skip right past the cookies and kettle corn, instead returning with microgreens, cherries, and cucumbers. Huffman says that's thanks to the friendly presence of Farmers Market Food Navigator Josh Miller, who helps market patrons build healthy eating habits, make the most of SNAP benefits, and build relationships with their farmers.
“Josh is great," Huffman says. "The kids look forward to going down there and saying hello, getting a free food sample, and getting an elbow bump. He makes it fun and interactive."
Farmers Market Food Navigators are present in farmers markets across the state of Michigan as the result of a collaboration between Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) and the Michigan Farmers Market Association. The Farmers Market Food Navigator program is funded in part by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from MFF. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
A Farmers Market Food Navigator talks to visitors.
When school is in session, Miller divides his days among 23 Saginaw Intermediate School District (SISD) schools, where he leads the Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds program for approximately 3,600 students. The monthly SNAP-Ed funded classroom sessions focus on healthy eating and physical activity, where kids learn how to prepare their own healthy snacks. But during the warm season, Miller focuses his efforts on the farmers market.
“At the market, I greet almost every single person entering," Miller says. "I look for those people who seem kind of lost. My elevator speech is, ‘If you have Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program (P-EBT) or SNAP benefits, here’s how to maximize your dollars at the market.’”
Farmers Market Food Navigator Josh Miller.
As Miller interacts with market patrons, he engages them in conversations about healthy foods and healthy lifestyle choices like staying active and drinking enough water.
“When people enter the market, it can be an overwhelming place,” he says. “Our job is to not only be a liaison, but also spread the word about healthy living and an active lifestyle.”
Market patrons flock to Miller because, in addition to informative conversation, he shares tasty, free food samples featuring low-cost, easy-to-prepare recipes made with ingredients you can find right in the market. Past recipes have included strawberry spinach salad, watermelon salsa, and Michigan blueberry brown rice salad.
Miller encourages people to taste a new recipe that has been prepared in a licensed kitchen and individually packaged for maximum safety in the age of COVID-19.
“A lot of people will say, ‘I’ve never tried this before, but wow, this is great!’" Miller says. "It allows for an experience that’s safe. They can take that recipe and they can try it before buying the ingredients. We are trying to help them stretch their dollars at the market.”
“Our goal is to increase people’s intention to try, buy, and eat more fruits and vegetables,” he says.
Saginaw has had farmers markets at different sites since 1910. In 2002, the Downtown Saginaw Farmers Market moved to its current location, where there’s room for 50 vendors to sell their wares four days a week. Many farms have been selling at the market for two or three generations. Located on a bus route, the market increases access to fresh, healthy, local food for residents of nearby neighborhoods and people working and living throughout the greater Saginaw area.
“When people come to market and try new foods, adults are sometimes hesitant to change," Miller says. "I break down that barrier. If they say, ‘I’ve never liked spinach,’ I say, ‘Try it with strawberries.’ I see people taking those risks in trying new foods."
Huffman says her kids are more inclined to try new foods when their mom isn't the person suggesting it, and Miller's bite-sized recipe samples have helped them realize the tastiness of foods they used to scorn.
“I can say I grew up on canned fruit and canned vegetables and didn’t develop a taste for fresh ones until adulthood," she says. "But now my kids request them.”
Huffman also says Miller has even changed her own mind a few times.
"I don’t like watermelon," she says. "But Josh’s watermelon salsa was really good — and of course we left with two watermelons.”
Miller reports that evaluations of the Food Navigator program show that it's increasing how often SNAP families eat fruits and vegetables. Even more important, Miller believes that when families take the time and effort to shop at the farmers market, they create their own healthy narratives about food, stories that support them in continuing to make better food choices lifelong. When they take home strawberries, they have a story about the farmer that becomes a story about themselves.
“The Farmers Market Food Navigator increases awareness for people who are looking to shop local and want fresh produce,” Miller says. “With that in mind, I’m seeing a lot of people becoming repeat customers, trying my new recipes, getting to know the farmers, and having a lot of great conversations.”