Seniors facing many health challenges have less access to healthy food.
Create social events to increase senior participation at voucher distributions for the USDA’s Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.
In Lackawanna County, Pa., the concept of standing in line has been turned into a community-wide, social event for seniors looking to eat healthy and form connections within the community.
The Lackawanna County Food Policy Council, a task force formed to address food insecurity issues, launched the Healthy Aging Produce Initiative or Eat HAPI Initiative, to increase senior participation in the Department of Agriculture’s Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.
The USDA program provides low-income seniors with access to locally grown foods by providing vouchers that can be used to purchase produce at local farmers’ markets. In Lackawanna County, seniors previously obtained vouchers at senior centers or at a small number of farmers’ markets that had no additional programming.
The Eat HAPI Initiative created senior farmers markets that specifically increased access to healthy food for seniors, increased the redemption rate of farmers’ market vouchers and created opportunities for socialization and recreation in the county.
“We needed to change how we did it and we wanted to see what we could do in terms of making this a much wider approach and it wasn’t just a handout,” said Jason Kavulich, director of the Area Agency on Aging.
Kavulich connected with partners which led to a few larger voucher distributions in strategic locations throughout the county.
The senior farmers markets featured music, food demonstrations, health providers doing blood pressure checks and other health-related stands where seniors could stop while waiting in line for their voucher.
“We lost that ‘bread-line look’ and then we kept going with it,” he said.
At each event, local farmers had stands selling produce to allow seniors to use their vouchers the same day. A local career technology center donated wooden produce stalls for the senior farmers markets for regional farmers to set up the stands.
Kavulich said the farmers made specific packages of different types of produce that matched the value of the vouchers.
“Instead of getting $5 worth of tomatoes or instead of getting $5 worth of cucumbers, you can get a variety for your $5 and have it all mixed up,” he said.
With seniors often facing mobility issues that make it hard to prepare meals, the events included chopping stations to make the produce easier to cook with and cooking demonstrations to teach seniors easy meals they could make at home.
Local musicians provided music and a yoga instructor offered free yoga as ways to engage with seniors at the markets.
“People really enjoyed it,” Kavulich. “It wasn’t just simply standing in line waiting for your voucher.”
The Agency on Aging partnered with the Lackawanna County Arts and Culture Department to help plan the events.
Lackawanna County Deputy Director of Arts and Culture Maureen McGuigan said the departments created these social events to tie arts, culture and education into the distributions.
“I’m really interested in art becoming part of systems in a good way — that it’s not something separate but can be incorporated,” she said.
In addition to providing access to healthy foods, McGuigan said the events focused on connecting people to the community.
“It’s helping people have knowledge to know how to eat better and to also prepare foods, but then expanding that vision into you’re part of a community and you can enjoy music and you can connect with others,” she said.
The events proved successful. Lackawanna County had the second highest farmer market voucher redemption rate in the state at 90.3 percent. According to Kavulich, the voucher program also puts about $100,000 into the local economy and into regional farmers’ hands.
“We said every year we’re going to continue to evolve our program,” he said. “We’re going to continue to add to it, make it educational, make it about nutrition, make it about how to access it and then also engage with local farmers.”
While COVID-19 put the Eat HAPI initiative on pause, Kavulich said this year they are holding similar Fridays in the Park events where they will be distributing vouchers in conjunction with other programming.
“The initiative just blossomed out of community partnerships, a willingness to continue to serve our community better and not just settling for what we’ve done year after year,” Kavulich said.