On the storm-shadowed morning of Tuesday, Sept. 16, the farm market is about to open. Workers stand over a vividly colorful array of fruits and vegetables. There are bright purple eggplants, a basket overflowing with green tomatillos, heirloom tomatoes, bok choy, fresh corn, peaches and much more. The food was in the ground or on a tree yesterday. Much of it is organic; all of it is high-quality.
But the shoppers hovering around the parking lot at the People’s Place thrift store on St. James Street aren’t buyers for high end restaurants looking for tonight’s special or downstate foodies doing some culinary tourism in the Hudson Valley. They are, by and large, folks accustomed to eating on food stamp budgets that limit their access to high-quality produce.
They’ve gathered for the first ever free farm market run by the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. The food bank runs a warehouse that ships donated foodstuffs to 360 community food pantries and soup kitchens in six Hudson Valley counties. The farm stand — funded by a grant from the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project — is intended to expand that mission with the help of the regions rich agricultural sector. Farmers donate fresh produce to the food bank, which in turns ships it to locations in Kingston, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh for distribution. Plans now call for regular produce giveaways at People’s Place every Tuesday for the remainder of the growing season. Plans, according to food bank officials, call for the expansion of the program to more Hudson Valley communities and a switch to all-organic offerings.
Food Bank Executive Director Ron Van Warmer said that the new farm markets were intended to address the lack of fresh produce in the diets of many poor Hudson Valley residents. Food stamp benefits in Ulster County run about $649 a month for a family of four. That’s enough to eat on, Van Warmer said, but not necessarily to eat well, especially at the end of the month when the monthly stipend is nearly exhausted. As a result, Van Warmer said, low income residents tend to rely on stomach-filling, but nutritionally marginal, processed food.
“People aren’t starving to death in America these days, but they are obese and they have diabetes,” said Van Warmer. “Because they’re eating fats and sugars and all of these unhealthy things, because that’s what they can afford.”
By contrast, the food given away at the farmstand is among the best produce available in the Hudson Valley. Among the offerings are crates of heirloom tomatoes that grace the tables at expensive Brooklyn eateries and can fetch $8 or $9 apiece at traditional farmers’ markets. Looking over the selection Thomas McPherson said he was impressed by the quality of the produce. McPherson said it’s a welcome change from the wilted, bruised castoffs usually offered at local food pantries.
“If you want to help the community, you can’t just clean out the garbage, you’ve got to give them the good stuff,” said McPherson. “This is the good stuff.”
McPherson meanwhile was stumped by the heirloom tomatoes as he’d never seen them before. That’s where Food Bank of the Hudson Valley nutritionist Amy Robillard comes in. At Tuesday’s event Robillard manned a table with stocked with recopies for eggplant with basil, red pepper and white bean salad and other healthy dishes. Robillard said that people accustomed to a diet high in processed food are often wary of trying out new dishes. She runs an education program “say yes to fruits and vegetables” that walks participants through the process of making simple healthy meals using fresh ingredients.
“Many people, in my experience are not quite sure what to do with fresh produce,” said Robillard. “Or they feel like its going to be very difficult to prepare.”
Paula Wisneski was busy filling a shopping bag with fresh tomatoes and peppers to bring to a mean with friends this evening. Her host, she said, would be eager to transform the bounty into salsa. Wisneski said she had just returned to work after a period of unemployment and was still waiting for her first paycheck. Wisneski said that she appreciated fresh vegetables but found the offerings at local farmers markets out of her price range.
“I walk through it,” she said of Kingston’s weekly farmers’ market on Wall Street. “I just can’t afford it.”