Great Barrington Farmers Market helps those struggling to buy food

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GREAT BARRINGTON — As need increases, hopefully, so will the money.

Since 2015, purchases at the Great Barrington Farmers Market by residents on food assistance programs have skyrocketed.

And now the market, which opens May 11 and runs on Saturdays until the last weekend of October, is trying to load its coffers so it can give people on assistance more spending power for fresh, local food.

"One in eight people experience food insecurity in the Berkshires, and it's not limited to any part of the county," said Bridgette Stone, the market's co-manager. "It's a need that exists and a need that continues to grow."

The market is holding its first fundraiser at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, a storytelling event that it hopes will bring awareness and much-needed cash so the market can increase its dollar-for-dollar money matching program.

So far the market has relied only on donations from local business sponsors to double assistance money like SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as food stamps.

"But it's still not enough," Stone said.

The numbers are rising. Since the market began the dollar-for-dollar matching in 2015 with help from the Berkshire Food Co-op, SNAP sales jumped from $900 in that first year to $22,000 in 2018.

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Sales also are up from WIC, or the Women, Infants and Children program, as well as seniors on assistance.

And so is the number of Berkshire County residents enrolled in SNAP.

The rise has climbed steadily since 2000, when 4,269 residents participated in SNAP, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

In 2016, that number hit 17,175. Federal data from 2012 to 2016 shows 14.3 percent of county residents in the program.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts says about 39,000 people in the county are in need of food assistance. About 30 percent are children.

Saturday's benefit will include samples from market vendors and feature local storyteller Joey Chernila, the producer of the event, as well as seven other locals, including Susan Sellew of Rawson Brook Farm, and Daniel Neilson, an assistant professor of economics at Bard College at Simon's Rock. Discounted tickets are available, and those with food assistance cards get in free.

While one local food bank organization sweeps leftover produce clean from the market and local supermarkets, Stone said shopping at the market supports local agriculture and adds something else for those who struggle with poverty — the freedom of choice.

"This allows you to shop and participate in the market and in the local food system, which is a definitive part of the Berkshire economy ... and with a sense of the dignity of, 'I can choose what I eat.' Because how we feed ourselves is important and intrinsic to who we are."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871


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