FRANKFORT — Finding Kentucky-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and apples on a regular basis in the homes of many lower-income Kentuckians has been a known challenge in Kentucky.
Struggling families living paycheck to paycheck who typically can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables have been less likely to get them. Kentucky farmers, in turn, have been likely to grow what they couldn’t sell or couldn’t sell the slightly blemished number 2-grade produce they did have.
One program that’s showing success in getting fresh produce into portions of the state that have been short on healthy fruits and veggies is the Kentucky Farms to Food Banks program, organized and operated by Kentucky’s food bank network.
First implemented in Eastern Kentucky in 2009—then statewide in 2011—the Farms to Food Banks program is putting millions of pounds of 25 different kinds of crops on Kentucky tables where plates of fresh fruits and vegetables have traditionally been scarce. Kentucky Association of Food Banks Executive Director Tamara Sandberg yesterday told the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture that over three million pounds of Kentucky-grown produce was distributed free of charge through food banks to people in all 120 counties in the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
Kentucky farmers are also benefiting from the program. Over 400 farmers in 62 counties who participated in Farms to Food Banks in fiscal year 2016 increased their income by an average of $1,500, Sandberg told lawmakers.
“Which isn’t a lot, but that’s the average. So we bought a pack of tomatoes, literally, from some farmers. Farmers tell us every year they are able to make payroll because of the funds; they are able to keep their workers working longer,” she said.
State budget funding for the Farms to Food Banks program has been around for a couple of years thanks to 2009 House Bill 344 sponsored by Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture Co-Chair Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana. That bill created a mechanism for millions of state dollars to flow through program, including $1.2 million in tobacco settlement funds appropriated for the program by the 2016 General Assembly in the current state budget.
Taxpayer donations are also flowing to the program through a state tax check-off for the program created by 2012 HB 419, sponsored by former Rep. Fred Nesler. Sandberg said $30,000 in taxpayer donations were received through the check-off program last fiscal year.
Bipartisan support for the Farms to Food Banks program was shared by members of the committee. Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, commented that one in six Kentuckians, including one in five children, are “food insecure” according to recent state statistics. (Food insecurity has been defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as hungry or at risk for hunger.) There is “no reason” for such large numbers of Kentuckians to face hunger with the resources available, Tipton said, adding “I believe we have a lot of people who are very committed to help solving this problem of hunger in the state of Kentucky.”
Co-Chair McKee said he believes “the future’s bright” for farm to food programs citing recent efforts to fight food insecurity across the Commonwealth.
“There’s no finer effort that we can undertake in the Kentucky General Assembly than feeding hungry people,” he said.
Providing fresh local produce to Kentuckians across all socio-economic levels with the support of their health providers through Bluegrass Harvest—an initiative of Lexington-based Community Ventures—was also discussed by the committee. Bluegrass Harvest uses community supported agriculture, commonly called CSA, to improve the health of Kentuckians while lowering employer health care costs and boosting farmers’ cash flow, organization president Sandy Canon explained.
“We know what the situations are here facing Kentucky. The physical health of many of our citizens is really appalling,” said Canon. “Depending on the survey you look at we’re either last or close to last on many of our health outcomes.” At the same time, employer health costs are rising while farmers are looking for markets for their products, she said.
Canon said Bluegrass Harvest is tackling these problems by connecting self-insured employers and their employees to fresh local produce through employer-offered voucher incentive programs. Current health providers participating in Bluegrass Harvest are the University of Kentucky Health and Wellness, Hospice of the Bluegrass and Appalachian Regional Healthcare, said Canon, and they’ve had good results. Doctor visits of participating employees have decreased as have monthly pharmacy expenditures.
Telling lawmakers that Bluegrass Harvest has “started small but our employers really want to grow this,” Canon suggested that CSA incentives be offered by the Commonwealth to state employees. The state currently utilizes a self-insured health plan which qualifies it for participation.
Offering each state employee a $200 voucher incentive—with the employee throwing in at least $250 of their own money for 20-25 weekly deliveries of locally-grown produce -would put around $39 million in the pockets of Kentucky farmers, potentially lower state health care costs and improve the health of employees, Canon explained.
“How cool would that be?” she asked.