Family help at harvest Nutrition: A federally funded program gives eligible families vouchers that can be used at farmers' markets.


Thanks to a little book of light-blue coupons, 2 1/2 -year-old Drew Wehner of Overlea gets freshly picked corn with dinner and his mother, Christine, gets a break on her food bill.

The Wehners are among 33,000 low-income Maryland families who use the government-funded coupons, which they can exchange for produce at farmers' markets throughout the state. Each household involved in the Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, is eligible, on a first-come, first-served basis, for a $20 book of vouchers -- which works out to $660,000 that participants can spend on fresh food.

Parents and children are not the only ones reaping the benefits.

Officials of several Baltimore County farmers' markets say coupons account for a significant amount of their business -- and some farmers are finding that half their market revenue is blue.

"It helps substantially -- every farmer takes in a good amount," said Albert Bethke, who runs the Golden Ring market. Last week -- the beginning of the 1998 coupon season, which ends Oct. 31 -- the market took in more than 350 of the $2 coupons, which come in books of 10.

"With the program being in place, it gives money to the younger people who ordinarily wouldn't shop at a farmers' market, and it encourages them to come in," Bethke said.

Parents involved in the 9-year-old Farmers' Market Nutrition Program agree. "I think it's great. It helps out a lot," said Barbara Markley, 31, of Overlea, who brought her three young sons to the Golden Ring market this week.

"I can't afford this in the store," she said.

Isaac Ezem, 46, a regular Golden Ring market customer who handed over all his coupons this week to feed his family of five, said he likes the quality. "They carry fresh fruits and vegetables," said the Dundalk resident, watching sons Kennedy, 8; Neil, 6; and Stanley, 2. "The ones in the supermarket, you don't know how long it's been there."

The farmers' market coupon program -- funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state departments of Agriculture and Health and Mental Hygiene -- sent 3,325 coupon books to families in Baltimore County this year, said Gene Nadolny, special projects coordinator with the state WIC program.

The coupons can be spent at the four county markets that are authorized to accept the coupons. Once used, they are sent to the Maryland Food Committee, which reimburses the farmers.

Farmers predict the program will have a long-term, positive impact on nutritional habits.

The program was started for that very reason, said Nadolny. Before getting the coupons, half the recipients had never visited a farmers' market, he said. But 84 percent now say they will continue to shop at the markets even after they're no longer eligible for free produce.

Among that group is first-time coupon user Anissa Chase, 29, who stopped by the Owings Mills market this week for peaches, apples, cantaloupe and vegetables. The Woodlawn resident planned to cut up the food for 1-year-old son Antonio Chase-Andino -- and said that when the coupons run out, she's going to come back.

"It's worth it to pay the cash," she said.

For information about WIC or the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, call 800-242-4WIC.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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