Remember that spare change you collected during Lent for Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl program?
Each year, 75 percent of all the funds collected in the Diocese of St. Cloud from the Rice Bowl program goes to CRS to be used in relief efforts around the globe. The remaining 25 percent is distributed locally in the form of grants through the St. Cloud Mission Office.
This year, over $34,000 was allocated to 13 grant recipients, including an $1,800 grant to the St. Cloud Area Farmer’s Market. The impact of the latter grant can be seen every Saturday morning from May through October in downtown St. Cloud as children and families shop the large selection the market has to offer.
From seasonal produce to farm fresh eggs and meats to tasty confections like caramel popcorn, the market appeals to a wide audience. And now, because of the Rice Bowl grant, the market is able to offer its goods to an even larger crowd.
The nonprofit farmers market, which is governed by a group of volunteer officers, recently began to offer EBT services to their clients. EBT stands for “electronic benefits transfer” and is a form of government food support for low-income families.
“There are a lot of people in need out there,” said Faye Haws, longtime vendor and volunteer treasurer for the St. Cloud Area Farmers Market. “I like the idea that we are not only helping low-income families stretch their food budget but also helping our local farmers.”
Diocesan CRS director Father Bill Vos said the way the market is using the grant is “an ideal illustration of why we have this grant program.”
“It targets real needs in a way that connects with other local ventures, especially in terms of the recipients having access to healthy, fresh nutritional food,” he said. “The objective of the Rice Bowl program is to focus on hunger and hunger-related issues and this initiative is providing meaningful sustenance to people in need.”
Haws said the market has been operating for about 30 years. She and her family have been vendors since 2000. The City of St. Cloud allows the group to use the Lady Slipper parking lot, located downtown north of Division Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
About two years ago, the group determined the need to offer EBT services that would allow low-income families the opportunity to buy healthy, locally-grown products, but it required purchasing a $1,000 machine. The group secured funding for the machine through a different grant. But it needed a worker to staff the EBT information booth each Saturday to stay up to date on EBT guidelines and procedures and maintain the necessary bookkeeping. That’s where the Rice Bowl grant came in.
“It’s expensive for us to run,” said Kelly Haws, vice president and secretary of the SCAFM. “But the results are more sales for our vendors, more people at the market and more opportunities to build community. It’s been just awesome.”
About $1,300 is used to pay the EBT information booth worker, Shannon Haws, in the form of “market bucks.” She can use the market bucks at any of the vendors, who in turn benefit from her purchases by redeeming the bucks for cash.
Kelly Haws, who is also a regular vendor with Bannockburn Farm in Cold Spring which she owns with her husband, Dan Stark, said the group took a “leap of faith” this year, using funds SCAFM would normally set aside for advertising to put into their various programs.
“It was really important to us to do this for the community, but we needed to make sure that our vendors weren’t taking a loss. It’s a big step but it’s been great,” she said.
On average, about 20 to 25 vendors, guest and seasonal, participate in the market each week, sometimes dependent on what crops and products are in season. Because of the EBT program, vendors, who are usually small growers, are seeing more sales.
Hunger Solutions is also a sponsor of the EBT program, providing up to a $10 match for EBT users, increasing their family’s food budget even further. It also has provided a $5,000 grant in the form of $10 gift certificates that are available to EBT users at no cost.
“Every week we see new and repeat EBT users,” said Shannon Haws. “Because of the matching grant program and some sponsorships in helping getting the word out that we are taking EBT, our numbers have just exploded.”
Last year Shannon said the market “came in strong” compared to other markets starting similar programs.
“We stood out as leading them but I still thought our numbers were weak,” she said. “We started out in May with that mindset and we had 15 EBT users come. For July, we had 100 EBT users. Half of those are new and half are repeat customers. Over $700 was spent at the market through EBT, and all of that was matched by Hunger Solutions.
“It’s such an important part for us to be able to offer this to our local people,” she added. “It’s a community thing and that’s how we look at it and why we keep doing it.”
The remaining $500 from the Rice Bowl grant has allowed the farmers market to implement child-focused initiatives. The first Saturday of each month is the “St. Cloud Area Farmer’s Market Loves Our Kids” program. Children can go to the information booth and receive a coupon for a $2 item that can be used at any vendor booth.
First-time market-goers Adriana and Edgar Gomz, who attend St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park, were visiting downtown St. Cloud Aug. 6 when they stopped at the St. Cloud Area Farmers Market. Their daughter, Ximina, 4, was happy to receive a $2 coupon to buy a healthy treat. Her parents also enjoyed the market.
“We were excited to see all of the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Adriana, a native of Mexico, said. “I like things like that because I remember in Mexico there were places like this where you could get the freshest stuff.”
“It is also a welcoming place for education,” Faye Haws said. “You can talk to your vendor about their product. You can ask them about the veggies you see in front of them. ‘Do you use chemicals? How do you grow it? How can we prepare it?’ It’s very educational. And that’s why we have our kids’ programs, to help them to appreciate fresh raw vegetables. When you see them coming around to pick out something, they are so proud. Its just marvelous.”
The vendors have a lot of fun with it, too. Patty Scott, or “Popcorn Patty” as she is known around the market, makes flavored popcorn like caramel, cheese, and bacon. On kids’ days, she makes extra packages of her goodies in proportionate $2 sizes.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “The kids love it. It gets more people involved.”
Every Saturday is a special event. Senior Sampling Day, for example, is the second Saturday of the month, when vendors provide samples of their products. Any senior can get a $2 coupon toward any of the sample items.
The third Saturday is Kid’s Produce Club, which also allows kids to “shop” at the market with a $2 coupon. The fourth Saturday is called Country Store. Any adult can pick a card that then qualifies them for a gift certificate or coupon for items around the market.
The market also hosts a garden-related kids’ craft each weekend. All of these events are made possible by their sponsors — Rice Bowl, Hunger Solutions, Sherburne County State Health Improvement Program and Healthy Communities Stearns County.
The St. Cloud Area Farmers Market runs every Saturday from May to October from 8 a.m. to noon.