I started my weekly market-fresh meal by pre-cooking an Italian Sausage from Deck Family Farm – for a vegan meal, you could omit the sausage, and throw in some tempeh from Squirrel and Crow Foods instead – in an inch of water in a large skillet for about five minutes, flipping it midway through. I then removed the sausage, poured off the liquid into a bowl, and set both aside.
I melted a tablespoon of butter in the skillet over medium heat, while I diced a quarter of an onion from Denison Farms – about half a cup of cut onion. I tossed the onion into the pan, and then finely chopped five leaves of sage and two stalks of rosemary from Cerigioli Gardens and added it to the mix. Next in was a dash of salt, and three chopped up cloves of garlic from Fiddlehead Farm.
That cooked for about five minutes, as I roughly chopped a tomato from Crooked Furrow Farm and a quarter of a yellow bell pepper from Simplicity Gardens, pausing to stir frequently. I added the tomato and pepper and let it cook for a couple minutes more, while I sliced up the partially-cooked sausage, which was, by then, cool enough to handle, and firm enough to slice easily.
I returned the sausage to the pan with the veggies, and topped it off with the reserved liquid and a sprinkle of fresh-ground pepper.
I turned up the heat to bring the liquid to a boil, and then back down to simmer. I let it simmer for about half an hour, cooking a batch of pasta in the meantime. By the time the pasta was ready, the sauce had reduced, and I poured it over the noodles, and ate it!
Late in the morning, on a rainy Sunday, I am strolling down southeast seventy-ninth, heading from Burnside to Stark. The rain is heavy, and I am quickly marching past the older, well-managed homes of the Montavilla neighborhood. I reach the market a few minutes before my volunteer shift as token master is set to begin. Despite the torrential rains, interrupted by periodic breaks of marvelous sunshine, the market is abuzz with patrons. An eclectic mix of Sunday strollers mill about the fresh wares, sampling local honey and Chelan cherries, while the scents and sounds of the vendor stalls fill the air. The peonies are brightly colored, and bundled in bouquets expertly wrapped in crisp, white paper by the couple at Chang’s fresh cut flower stand. Overall, I am impressed by the number of people, although later, Katie, the Montavilla Farmers Market Volunteer & Financial Coordinator, will tell me it is a rather slow event, comparatively.
A few minutes before noon, I approach the information booth. I am a little nervous, as I prepare to meet up with Katie, who is all set up to show me the nuances of Montavilla’s token master position. Katie quickly puts my nerves at ease. She knowledgeably, and skillfully, walks me through the steps in using the market’s card reader to transfer funds from debit and SNAP EBT cards, into token currency redeemable throughout the market. Logs and receipts are kept to track debit and SNAP card purchases and payouts, and the token master is also charged with explaining how the two types of tokens are redeemable throughout the market, in addition to clarifying the nuances of the Double Up Food Bucks program. It is this last point that sparked my interest in conducting my volunteer work with the Montavilla Farmers Market to begin with.
As the mother or a young child, who found myself an unexpectedly unemployed, single mom, the SNAP program has quite literally allowed me to be where I am today. I started working when I was seventeen years old, and never looked back. I worked full time, while putting myself through college (the first time), so the need for public assistance programs was never really on my radar. I knew that when I was young, and my baby sister was born, my fledgling parents struggled, and relied on food stamps, to see us through, but as soon as we were old enough to go to school, my mom went back to work, and we moved on from the program. Now, in order to finish my degree and re-enter the workforce, as well as raise my three-year-old daughter without any family living nearby, working enough hours (hours when I am available, not when I am needed to be available) to support the two of us right now, is a logistic nightmare. Being able to depend on a social safety net, such as the SNAP program, is the hinge point that allows this endeavor to be possible. Knowing that guaranteed funds will be available every month to put food on the table, is a relief that gives me the luxury to complete my higher education journey, and raise a well-fed child.
Knowing just how hard I have to work in order to make the SNAP funds we receive last an entire month, makes me incredibly enthusiastic about what is going on within Portland’s farmers market network. Markets, such as Montavilla, are going out of their way to develop plans that stretch the benefits dispensed to SNAP recipients, while encouraging shoppers to make healthy food choices in spending their benefits on fresh, local produce, as opposed to highly processed, nutritionally deficient foods found in grocery and convenience stores. Speaking with Gretchen Jackson, MFM’s original market manager, who has been involved with the market since co-founding it in 2007, I learned that the Everybody Eats fund has been instrumental in creating a healthier Montavilla community, by working to create a thriving market in the neighborhood. The token redemption system was developed in-house by MFM board members, who were able to solve the problem of redeeming vendors for SNAP purchases via a token currency system.
This year, expanded funding initiated the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows markets throughout the state to match SNAP token purchases up to an additional $10. In this way, a SNAP recipient can stretch $10 into $20, just by spending their benefits at a local farmers market. At a time in post-recession America, where more citizens are taking advantage of the need to collect SNAP benefits than many of us realize or care to admit, this is a program that can make a big impact in people’s lives, my own included.
As I spend my two-hour shift familiarizing myself with the token redemption process, I begin to take note of those who come to the information booth to purchase SNAP tokens and receive Double Up Food Bucks. My main observation, is that there is no stereotypical SNAP recipient. I witness single people, couples, and families make SNAP token purchases. Older members of the community, and college students stop by the table. Visitors from multiple ethnic groups and those from, seemingly, various levels of socioeconomic status approach the information booth, with a SNAP EBT card in hand. A mother with her adult son purchases SNAP tokens, as she explains the benefits of the Double Up program to him. Most market-goers know the routine, and those new to the system are especially thrilled when they learn the specific benefits of using their card at the market. Throughout my shift, many of them return to purchase more tokens, even though the additional tokens are not doubled again until their next visit. I am delighted by the energy and joy everyone seems to be displaying at being able to make so many healthy food choices.
As the market comes to an end, Katie shows me how to close up the token master station. I gather my belongings, thank Katie for her time, and begin my journey home. I wait for the bus, thinking about just how lucky we are to live in a society that is funding and supporting local farmers, and citizens wrestling with food insecurity. I recall a piece from the Times, a photojournalism feature from a book by photographer Peter Menzel, entitled Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, that showcases images of families around the world, alongside a week’s worth of their groceries. The disparities in how we access food in this country are vast, but the chasm between the US and the third world is almost unfathomable. As I think about all of the cuts our legislative branch makes to programs such as SNAP, under the claims that these welfare programs incentivize laziness and abuse of funds, I am grateful that I can still put any food at all on my table right now. The mental image of a family living in a refugee camp in Chad, surrounded by barely anything we recognize as sustenance in this country, reminds me that the problems of food insecurity are many, and they are far-reaching. Continuing the conversation, allowing one another to see the situation of food insecurity from a vantage point other than our own, is critical to making sure “Everybody Eats.”
On a Sunday afternoon, in weather nearly forty degrees warmer than two weekends prior, I return to the market for another stint. I need to capture photos, and get clarification on a few points for my final presentation. Even in 100-degree weather, the market is humming. Again, Katie notes that the weather is driving numbers down a bit, but I am impressed by the turnout nonetheless. I have made the decision to volunteer at the market every other Sunday during the summer, and to attend the market on the Sundays in-between with my daughter. There is no way I cannot turn down the opportunity presented by Montavilla to stretch $40 worth of SNAP benefits into $80 worth of fresh, local produce throughout the month. Volunteering also gives me the chance to promote something I feel good about, which, in this day and age, can be a rare opportunity.
As the sun beats down on the glistening Montavilla market-goers, and staff members, I am hopeful about the state of the world for the first time I can remember in a long while. Playing a small role in solving a larger social problem has an energizing effect. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in an education system that sees the value in community activism, and I am thankful for an occasion to take an active part in a cause that means something to me on a personal level. I look forward to a summer of continuing to make a difference in the fight to increase food security for Portlanders.