By Michael Campbell News Editor
SURRY – With few options for those living within Surry’s borders in terms of grocery stores and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the county’s farmer’s market has been a resource to help link residents with local produce and, with a recently submitted grant application, Surry hopes to grow that resource even more.
According to county officials and grant documents, Surry is seeking over $286,000 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, or FMPP, in an effort to help expand the county’s farmer’s market in a number of key areas.
The FMPP seeks to “increase domestic consumption of, and access to, locally and regionally produced agricultural products, and to develop new market opportunities for farm and ranch operations serving local markets by developing, improving, expanding, and providing outreach, training, and technical assistance to, or assisting in the development, improvement, and expansion of, domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.”
In Surry’s grant application, the county explained its overall goals they hope to accomplish if approved, mainly increasing the capacity of the farmer’s market that started in 2015 by conducting vendor training, outreach efforts, and regional marketing.
According to the county, Surry is located in a “Strike Force Zone,” which refers to the USDA StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity program, part of former president Barack Obama’s efforts to address persistent poverty in communities across America.
Data provided by the USDA shows in 2015, over $349 million in funds were spent on over 3,000 projects across over two dozen counties mainly focused south and west of the Metro-Richmond and Tri-City area, which included nearly 300 farmers being assisted and nearly 4 million summer meals provided to children.
Along with the StrikeForce Zone designation, the county also faces a reality where there are no local or retail supermarkets within Surry’s borders, which Surry points to as key reasons for “an outlet for local agricultural producers and other specialty producers to market fresh produce to the local community.”
For some, getting to a full-service grocery store, be it locally owned or a part of a chain, can require some Surry residents to drive as far south and east as Smithfield or west toward Wakefield in neighboring Sussex, or north into Prince George and the Tri-Cities which puts the Surry area in a food desert, meaning that the area is lacking fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and other healthy food providers.
For those reasons, the county is looking to grow their popular farmer’s market to include more vendors and allow for the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits at the market.
According to the county, nearly 500 of the county’s 7,000 residents are currently receiving SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps and those individuals are seen as benefiting just as much from the FMPP as the farmers themselves, noting that vendors would be trained in accepting SNAP benefits while residents, including SNAP recipients, would have access to “a number of varied convenient local food vendors from which to purchase nutritious food options.”
“Surry County’s Farmer’s Market, implemented in 2015, fills some of the unmet need for fresh food and grocery products; however, program expansion to include vendor training about SNPA program requirements, marketing, and electronic payment options would expand the Farmers Market venue and create greater opportunities for local constituents to meet their grocery and fresh food product needs in the community they live.”
The grant proposal has received the support of a number of people around the region and in Washington, D.C., with Congressman Donald McEachin urging the USDA to support the county’s application.
“There is a great need for local farmers and agricultural producers to provide fresh produce to their community,” McEachin said in his letter of support. “Funding awarded from the FMPP grant would help Surry County expand much-needed access to fresh produce. “Improving needed access to healthy, fresh and local produce will improve the health and quality of life for the people of Surry County.”
In addition to McEachin, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Basil Gooden penned a letter of support for Surry’s application, praising the county for its efforts to eliminate the food desert that is present in Surry.
“This comprehensive program will expand the current local farmers market, greatly increasing the capabilities of their community to connect with Virginia’s agricultural producers and advance regional food business enterprises,” Gooden said, noting the county’s proposed partnership with Virginia State University, the county’s Cooperative Extension office and the Surry Department of Social Services, who administers SNAP benefits to residents.
Locally, Social Services Director Valerie Pierce spoke to the county’s endeavor to expand the market and add the ability to use SNAP benefits.
“The [USDA] has made expanding SNAP recipients’ access to fresh foods and vegetables through farmers markets a priority in recent years,” she said. “In 2008, about 750 farmers accepted SNAP. In 2012, over 3,200 participated.”
According to Pierce, currently, three farmer’s markets accept SNAP benefits in Surry’s general area: the Prince George Farmers Market along Scott Memorial Park Road, the Smithfield Farmer’s Market on Main Street, and the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market along West Duke of Gloucester Street.
“As an organization that administers SNAP, we encourage recipients to make healthy choices when making food purchases,” she said. “In fact, a farmer’s market in the county will provide SNAP recipients better access to locally grown food and will promote healthy eating.”
“Buying from the local farmer, whether with SNAP benefits or some other form of payment, not only financially benefits the farmer, but the community as well,” she closed.
As part of the grant, the county will be partnering with Petersburg’s Virginia State University and their Small Farm Outreach Program as they work together to provide the county access to “socially disadvantaged agricultural producers and agribusinesses, specifically veteran farmers who are current beneficiaries of the technical assistance, education and training provided by the SFOP’s agriculture management agents.”
“Working cooperatively, these producers will derive direct benefits from the Surry County Farmer’s Market,” remarked program director William Crutchfield. “Through the assistance of the SFOP, direct [marketing] opportunities and marketing plans will be developed to increase market capacity and ensure the agriculture products offered through the Surry County Farmers Market meet the mandates of the USDA.”
According to the county’s application, they hope this grant and its objectives will be to the benefit of over 30 local farmers and serve to increase the variety of product available and the number of vendors at the market.
The county now awaits a decision from the USDA and Federal government on the status of their application.