BRIDGETON — Marie Swann said she would rather use some of her food vouchers to buy groceries at local farmers markets like Rottkamp Farms to get the freshest produce.
“We’re always coming here anyway, especially for corn and tomatoes,” she said. “I’d rather use some of my vouchers here than at the store, because I support the local farm markets.”
Swann, who uses Women, Infants and Children vouchers, and her niece Aaliyah Drews, 5, both of Cedarville, joined other participants in state nutrition programs, agriculture and health officials Thursday as they celebrated National Farmers Market Week by stressing the importance of access to healthy and affordable produce for lower-income populations.
Cathleen Bennett, commissioner of the state Department of Health, talked with shoppers at the farm market Thursday afternoon and handed out pre-packed bags filled with corn, fruit and other summer produce.
“In places like Bridgeton, which is surrounded by farmland, we need to ensure that urban centers have access to that fresh produce,” she said.
Cumberland County, as well as South Jersey as a whole, has some of the highest rates of food insecurity and poverty in the state, which was examined in the yearlong Press of Atlantic City series Growing Up Hungry.
About 12.9 percent of Cumberland County’s population is food insecure, or lacking access to affordable, healthy foods. Rates are even higher in Atlantic, Cape May, Essex and Salem counties, according to data from Feeding America.
But more than 200 farmers markets in all counties now accept WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers. A majority of the markets also accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
The health department oversees the WIC and senior programs and the state Department of Human Services oversees SNAP.
Pat Dombroski, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said about 1.6 million women and children nationwide benefit from the WIC farmers market program.
Eligible WIC participants can receive four vouchers worth $5 each for the season to buy from authorized farmers. The program runs June 1-Nov. 30 each year.
Douglas Fisher, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, said the programs provide ways to support New Jersey farming families and meet the nutritional needs of people using the vouchers and benefits.
Yet only 66 percent of WIC farmers market vouchers were redeemed statewide in 2016, Bennett said, a loss of $301,843 in voucher money that was returned, unused, to the federal government.
“One of the things we’ve been looking at, how do we enhance our redemption rate here in New Jersey, because we do know we can do a better job,” she said. “We want to make sure that everybody who is eligible for a voucher is actually using it and that our farmers are supported.”
Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly, who joined the celebration Thursday, said the efforts of farming families such as the Rottkamps are what contribute to the wellness of communities and all of their residents.
Kelly, who is also the CEO of the Gateway Community Action Partnership, said a new healthy living bus will coordinate with farms to provide transportation and food to those who cannot otherwise come to farmer’s markets to use their vouchers.
“This is why we’re called the Garden State,” he said. “This is ground zero for healthy living and eating here in New Jersey.”