By HANNAH MORGAN
BALTIMORE—Tatiana Nicolayeva, a Ukrainian immigrant, has been coming to her Park Heights neighborhood farmers market for years.
She can buy produce at the grocery store down the block, but she prefers the farmers market, where she can double her food stamp value and buy more "special" produce, like watermelons and apple cider.
"It is expensive here too, but I can buy something that is special," and that is, "good for farmers," Nicolayeva said on a recent Wednesday morning as she picked through bushels of freshly picked gala apples.
But the grant programs that have allowed Nicolayeva and others to double their food stamps have either run out, or will soon run out, leaving the market with fewer customers and many questions about whether the programs will continue next year.
The program that Nicolayeva has been using to double her food stamps is expected to run dry in the next two to three weeks, said Kaleema Breathett, the assistant director of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance, an organization that works to improve the health of Park Heights residents through wellness initiatives, community education, and other programs.
This year, the Park Heights farmers market, run every Wednesday morning, offered shoppers on certain food stamps the opportunity to double the worth of the food stamps they brought to the market.
Two grant-funded programs were especially popular.
One doubled the worth of stamps for women and children (WIC), and the other doubled the worth of stamps for residents on food stamps (EBT).
Maryland Hunger Solutions organized the programs offered at the Park Heights market, which is just one of seven Baltimore markets that participated this year. The programs were funded by grants through a small part of the 2008 farm bill, and supplemented with local grants from the Wholesome Wave organization, The Abell Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundations.
The incentive funding for shoppers using WIC food stamps ran out in early September, and the market has seen a sharp decline in customers.
"Since we don't have the women and children (WIC) incentives anymore, we see a decline, people stop coming to the market because they come here for more food," said the market's manager, Gabryelle Chapple.
She estimates at least 70 percent of customers at the market rely on food stamps, and benefit from the doubling programs.
Farmers worry customers like Nicolayeva, who benefit from the other food stamp program (EBT) will stop coming when its funding runs out soon.
The future of the programs depends on outside funding.
Congress recessed late September without passing a new farm bill, and farmers and those dependent on federal food supplements are unsure what will happen in the coming year.
The outcome of the farm bill debate will affect how much money Maryland Hunger Solutions will have to apply for in order to continue the incentive programs next year. It is too soon to begin applying for grants, and the amount of federal funding Maryland Hunger Solutions receives will determine how many grants they will apply for. The Senate and the House have proposed two very different farm bills.
The Senate's proposed legislation allocates up to $20 million in federal funds for incentive grants like those used at the Park Heights market. The proposed House Agriculture Committee's legislation cuts up to $16 billion of basic food stamp funding. More changes will be made to the new farm bill, but it is too soon to tell what they will be.
Whatever legislation is passed will affect the way 720,000 Marylanders, or 1 in every 8 residents, can purchase food.
"We are very excited about the possibility of potential Senate incentive grants, but we have to also acknowledge crucial SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and food stamp incentive programs that are being heavily cut," said Laura Flamm, the nutrition associate at Maryland Hunger Solutions.
The Park Heights farmers market, run out of the parking lot at Pimlico Race Course, runs every Wednesday in a neighborhood the Baltimore City Health Department listed as a food desert in 2011.
"The issue isn't just that if you live in a food desert, the quality of the food is very different, but often the cost can be different in different neighborhoods. Residents in food deserts don't necessarily know how to cook or store certain foods," like some fresh fruits or vegetables, said Flamm.
Here, the life expectancy is 20 years lower than in Roland Park, a neighborhood just four miles away, said Breathett, of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance. "Markets like this are crucial to bringing healthy food to residents here," she said. Word of mouth has helped the market grow considerably this year, and Breathett is already worrying about the programs they will be able to offer next summer.
The problem is the more people who attend the market, the faster the funding runs out.
As the lunchtime rush moved in around 1 p.m. recently, farmers commented on the lack of customers. At the end of the month, and with WIC incentives gone, almost half of the normal clientele were missing, said Beverly Burton, from Greenwood Farms. As Nicolayeva carefully picked the last of the summer watermelon produce, a neighbor, Delores Pittman, grabbed some of the first autumn apples for a cobbler she planned to bake.
Without the incentive funding, "we will lose a lot of customers. I am very much aware of how this will affect us," Burton said.