By Katie Demeria
Agencies throughout Virginia are working to allow individuals of all income levels access to local, healthier food.
Virginia was recently ranked ninth in the country for the number of farmers markets, but many still cannot access the fresh produce provided at those markets, Beth Shermerhorn, education support specialists with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, pointed out.
"Contrary to popular belief, a lot of people actually know how to use fresh fruits and vegetables, but if you don't have a vehicle of your own to get to a grocery story that might be a mile or more away, it makes it very difficult to access the healthy food you desire to eat," Shermerhorn said.
Shermerhorn works with Virginia's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, as well. She said, apart from education, her office works to make supplemental nutritional assistance programs available at farmers markets so families struggling economically can still access fresh and affordable food.
"As a consumer I think it's really important to know where your food comes from and to develop a relationship with the grower or producer so that you know exactly what type of food you're getting and the quality and the growing practice the farmer has," she said.
Our Health, a human services nonprofit in Winchester, supports one of the only farmers markets in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that accepts the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP.
Executive Director of Our Health Sharen Gromling said the Healthy Living event has taken place during the first Wednesday of each month, May through October.
"We wanted to make sure that we were allowing our clients who visit our campus the opportunity to purchase healthy fruits and vegetables and baked goods," Gromling said of the agency's decision to start accepting SNAP. "And this way, they can do that."
The event features much more than just local farming vendors. It includes health opportunities such as free screenings, checking cholesterol and blood pressure, and nutritional education.
"We took a holistic approach do it," Gromling said. "We're not just talking nutrition and exercise, we're talking healthy lifestyles."
Rebecca Davis, extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said there are numerous benefits to eating locally grown produce.
Freshly picked fruits and vegetables, she pointed out, are more nutritious than those found at the supermarket that have been sitting on a truck for several days.
That is why, she added, it is important that everyone have access to places like farmers markets where they can purchase that produce.
"Low-income people need access to fresh fruits and vegetables -- it benefits them health wise, and it benefits the farmers economically," Davis said. "It's a win-win."
The Healthy Living events take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 329 North Cameron St. in Winchester.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org