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.
Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District (GIRESD) issued Prescriptions for Health (RxFH) to approximately 100 low-income participants over the past three years, but they don't fill their prescriptions at the drugstore. They use their prescriptions as coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables at Mt. Pleasant’s Island Park Farmers Market and St. Louis Farmers Market, where friendly Farmers Market Food Navigators share nutrition tips and teach them how to make the most of their food dollars.
The program is part of Food and Fitness for Families, GIRESD's school-based nutrition project that focuses on establishing healthy eating habits and increasing physical activity. It is made possible through funding from a Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) SNAP-Ed grant. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed). SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers competitive grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.
This year, GIRESD enlisted Food Navigators that helped make the RxFH program even more effective. They assisted shoppers by helping them maximize their food dollars while purchasing fresh, healthy food for their families; gave personalized tours and introductions to vendors; and explained the food assistance programs available at the market. They also provide food tastings, recipe ideas, and strategies to help families eat more seasonal produce.
A Farmers Market Food Navigator interacts with a market patron.
“We found that the social aspect of our RxFH program is really important. Having a Food Navigator at the market each week, a smiling face ready to offer personal assistance, really added to it,” says Linda Bader, St. Louis Farmers Market manager. “The incentive items and handouts encouraged the participants to come back to the market even after their RxFH coupons had run out.”
Food Navigators helped RxFH shoppers stretch their food budget. Many shoppers carry additional vouchers, like WIC Project FRESH Coupons or Double Up Food Bucks, that increase the value of their SNAP benefits so they can purchase more fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables.
“Coupons are a great incentive to get people to the market, though we have found our participants want healthy recipes and education about how to use their produce to get the most out of their purchases. Many have shared that they don’t know how to cook, preserve, or use fresh fruits and vegetables in a recipe,” says GIRESD Farmers Market Food Navigator Program Lead Kelli Sigafoose. “We’ve also learned the farmers market can often be a confusing place for our shoppers. So we are here to help guide them around the market, offer recommendations, provide healthy recipes, and help them with tips to eat healthy and stay on budget."
A broccoli tasting station set up by Farmers Market Food Navigators, including preparation tips and a recipe.
"We are really trying to knock down any barriers people have to eating healthy and it’s working," Sigafoose says.
MFF surveys show that 29% of shoppers who interacted with Food Navigators more than once are eating more vegetables than they were before.
“Food Navigators also provide outreach for the markets that accept SNAP benefits. A lot of people think farmers markets are expensive and may not know that there are markets that accept SNAP – because there are many markets that don’t. We want to make sure they know our farmers markets are affordable and accessible,” Sigafoose says. “We do our best to inform them through social media, with flyers...anything we can do to get more people in our community to come out to our markets. Our goal for this program is to inspire people to create healthy behaviors, and the outreach by our Food Navigators helps us achieve our goals.”
GIRESD’s RxFH program is a collaborative initiative with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department (MMDHD) serving as the lead. Each RxFH participant receives $120 worth of coupons over a six-week period during the summer market season. They can be spent on fruits, vegetables, herbs, and food plants. MMDHD Program Director Rex Hoyt implements RxFH at the two farmers markets, and says he appreciates having the Food Navigators' assistance.
A tomato tasting station set up by Farmers Market Food Navigators.
“This is the first year we were able to leverage two complementary programs,” Hoyt says. “The major difference is that it brought another person into the fold who could talk directly with the participants and get them acclimated to the farmers market, what goes on there, how to talk to food vendors, what to look for, and how to answer participants’ questions. That interaction with participants is valuable and keeps our participants interested in the program over the long term.”
According to RxFH surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the market season, RxFH participants are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and increasing their physical activity.
“We know that they are using the coupons to buy produce," Hoyt says. “We’ve seen 90-95% of the RxFH coupons being reimbursed. We find that when people in our community enroll in the program, they stick with the program. In fact, 40 out of 70 RxFH participants spent every coupon dollar available last year. And that is impressive.”
A prescription for wealth
Local farmers at Island Park and St. Louis farmers markets have benefited from the RxFH and Food Navigator programs too.
“The participants develop a familiarity with the market vendors and build relationships with them. When you get repeat customers, that’s really good,” Bader says.
Hoyt notes that about $9,300 in RxFH coupons were reimbursed last year, with all the money going to local farmers selling at Island Park and St. Louis farmers markets. He expects a similar total for 2020.
"We know that at the St. Louis market, those extra funds probably kept the primary produce vendor at the market going through the summer," he says. "It’s a little more challenging in our rural counties. Rural farmers markets are small, often with one primary vendor. If you lose that vendor, you are really in trouble.”
A Farmers Market Food Navigator interacts with a market patron.
As the 2020 RxFH program ends, the Food and Fitness for Families program will continue to encourage students, families, and faculty to make healthier choices. But when the 2021 farmers market season rolls around, Farmers Market Food Navigators and RxFH will be back, with plans to expand into two more GIRESD-region farmers markets in Clare and Gladwin counties.
“I am looking forward to having even more collaborations between the markets, RxFH, and the Food Navigators in the future," Bader says.