Farmers’ Market program for low income seniors cut without state budget

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NEW BRITAIN -- Farmers are a patient group. They’re used to waiting for their crops to grow and they wait all year for the summer Farmers’ Market season.

But this year, they also have to be patient with the state government, waiting for lawmakers to pass a budget.

While the state operates without a budget, funding for the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) has been eliminated. It’s a program that brings fresh, local produce to low income seniors by giving them checks to use at Farmers’ Markets.

“They receive a check book of six $3 checks, which they can only redeem for fresh fruits and vegetables and honey at Connecticut Farmers’ Markets,” explained Jaime Smith, Marketing and Inspection Rep II at the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.

Smith said the program helps drive traffic to Farmers Markets while making fresh produce available to a nutritionally at risk group.

The state had already given out 29,500 checkbooks this season, so the Dept. of Agriculture sent an e-mail to participating farmers over the weekend letting them know those checks are no longer valid.

“I thought, ‘This couldn’t come at a worse time. Farmers Markets are just gearing up,’” said Joey Listro, Executive Director at New Britain Roots.

New Britain Roots set up a stand at the city’s first farmers market of the season Wednesday selling produce from Urth Farms.

“Unfortunately these checks have already been distributed,” he said. “We’ve already had to turn away a customer today.”

The e-mail told farmers to stop accepting SFMNP checks immediately because they cannot be compensated for the transaction at this time. The affected checks are in the “2 million series” numbered 2,000,001 through 2,200,000. Checks in the “3 million series” through 3,006,000 are still valid because they are covered under the federal SFMNP funded by the USDA.

Listro said New Britain farmers receive a lot of senior checks throughout the summer and the fall.

“This might have a devastating impact on not only the seniors who really utilize the program, but the farmers who expect to have those customers,” he said.

Matt Mercier of Berger Nursery and Garden in Berlin said he may still accept the “2 million series” checks and hope the state can cover the cost once a budget is passed.

“I like what I grow and I like people to enjoy it, “ said Mercier. “So I wouldn’t turn people away, no.”

He said, “the elderly and those that are in need should have something to help them out to get good food.”