Montavilla Market Outreach : Senior Program
Those who have shopped at the Montavilla Farmers Market know that it’s something special. Small and intimate, the market stands out from the sea of Portland farmers markets for its uniquely neighborhood vibe. There is a homespun quality to the market, frequented by people who live nearby, people who are passionate about this growing and changing neighborhood whether it is where they’ve called it home for two years or twenty. Since 2007, the Montavilla Farmers Market has been thriving on the corner of Southeast Stark and 76th street, growing right along with the neighborhood. However, for this market, growth didn’t simply mean size. For board members, vendors, loyal volunteers and shoppers alike, it was important that the market grow in terms of reach as much as anything else – getting great local food to those who need it most is something that the Market has collectively shown a commitment to, innovating new programs and taking advantage of existing ones to share its bounty with anyone and everyone who’d like to partake, regardless of income.
Everybody Eats, established in 2010 and evolving every since, is perhaps the most clear statement that the market makes about its’ commitment to fighting food insecurity in the area. For three years now, the market has been matching the first $5 of SNAP tokens that customers spend, and in 2010 they received enough donations to give 40 families in need $25 each to do their Thanksgiving shopping at the market. Customers with SNAP benefits can run their card right there at the market and receive tokens right there on the spot, and the market will match the first $5 they spend there thanks to a grant from New Seasons.
Even with all of this outreach, there were still people in the community that were slipping through the cracks. Former Montavilla Market Board member Kyle Curtis knew from his graduate studies in Sustainable Food Policy that low-income Senior citizens who are recipients of SNAP benefits have the lowest redemption rates. At an age when proper nutrition and enough calories per day is absolutely essential, and can even be a matter of life and death, some of our most at-risk neighbors are unable to take advantage of their benefits. Though they can afford them, because of limited mobility and other age-related issues, the fresh wonderful foods that could give them strength too often feel out of reach.
In January of 2011, after noticing that the physical characteristics of the market weren’t especially elderly-friendly – the pot-hole-and-puddle-prone gravel space isn’t a breeze for even the most youthful among us – Kyle suggested to the board that they put some time and a little money into making the market more accessible to seniors. As he puts it “If we weren’t able to get A to B, let’s think about how we might be able to bring B to A.” He got the green flag, and, teaming up with Jessie Mandel with the County’s Aging and Disabilities Division and with vendor Rowan Steele began to brainstorm and fundraise.
Steele’s work at the market had originally grown out of a deep concern for issues of food insecurity within the community as well as a passion for sustainable agriculture. He and his partner Katie have been sharing the fruits of their Fiddlehead Farm at the market for two years now, and in his own words he believes that “the Montavilla Market is a vehicle for expanding the viability of a regional food system and strengthening our community fabric. Farmers markets are often perceived as elite venues, but I believe that they have the ability, the responsibility, to serve our communities, strengthen local economies, protect the viability of local agriculture while encouraging sustainable practices and stewardship, and improve public health.” Clearly he believes in leading by example.
Working hard together, starting only in January of this year, Rowan and Kyle managed not only to discern a vision for helping this often-overlooked community, but to actually initiate a pilot program that began in September and will run through the end of the Market on Oct. 30th, 2011. Thanks to partnerships with Multnomah County Aging and Disabilities Services and to the Belmont Loaves and Fishes Senior Center, Kyle and Rowan built a program that shops for and delivers fresh foods from the farmers market to senior center, eliminating the need for them to physically come shop at the market.
Each week, Kyle and Rowan go to the Belmont Senior Center during a busy time, and connect with people who might be interested in the program. Interested individuals sign up for a $2.50 bag of produce which they can either pay for with cash or a SNAP card. The market then matches their $2.50, and on Monday, seniors can pick up a $5 bag of produce at the Senior Center that has been prepared for them. Initially slated to run only for the month of September, the program was quite successful for a pilot – attracting 6 seniors a week in just 4 weeks – and was thus extended for an additional month. According to Rowan the goal of this test run was two-fold ; to provide better access to food to an underrepresented group and to explore the long term feasibility of the program.
Curtis is full of hope for the future of the program, despite the fact that an earlier funding expansion request was denied. “We applied before we began the pilot and had real data collected. If we are able to get continued financial support from Market shoppers and the County, or private & foundation support, I think this program can address many barriers to food access, while providing great economic benefits to small farmers!”
When asked what his take on the ultimate outcome of this pilot program, Rowan Steele’s tone was likewise optimistic; “my hope is that this pilot identifies opportunities for a long-term, sustainable Food Delivery program that provides non-mobile people in need with fresh, local produce. On a broader scale, I’d like to see this program strengthen partnerships between the market and local organizations and agencies, and open doors for future innovative strategies aimed at increasing community food security in Portland.” A worthy aspiration, and – thanks to people like Rowan, Kyle and farmers and patrons who make the Montavilla market what it is – an achievable one.