|Local farmers are providing fresh fruits and vegetables to the residents of a food desert through the Southern University Ag Center's St. Helena Farmers Market.|
St. Helena, La. – The small parish of St. Helena is located in Southeast, Louisiana with a population of 10,016 residents. Although the parish is comprised of cities covered in green pastures and rural scenes, ideal for farm life, it is classified by the USDA as an extreme food desert. As a result of the scarcity of nutritious foods, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the health risk of St. Helena's citizens as severe, due to high percentages of hypertension, diabetes, strokes, and cancer which riddles this small community.
Having only two grocery stores and little to no access to fresh produce, the Southern University Ag Center’s Agricultural and Natural Resources unit recognized the need for a change and sought ways to bring aid to the community.
Southern University Ag Center Ag and Natural Resources Agent for St. Helena Parish, Burnell Muse met with farmers and various store owners in and around the area. Through these meetings, it became clear that the farmers in this parish produced quite a bit of vegetables nearly all year. Yet, the issue was not a supply shortage of food, but instead a disconnect between growers and consumers.
With this information, the Southern University Ag Center began to discuss how a Farmers' Market could solve the lack of fresh produce in the parish.
Several of the limited resource farmers within the parish had several questions before buying into the idea. Some of the questions at hand were: Would they need a license to participate? Will the market impose a fee? Is there a market for my produce and what happens to produce that doesn't sell at the market?
To answer those questions, the Ag Center partnered with the St. Helena Healthy Community Coalition along with other community partners and received assistance from a healthy community grant to secure a location for the market and waive all fees for the farmers. This helped ease the minds of the growers, which made them eager to participate.
In 2017, three venders participated in the first farmers market and sold all of their produce within three hours of opening.
Since that time, the market has moved to a location in the heart of the town of Greensburg, La. This location is on a major route through town and provides greater visibility. The market has increased to 14 vendors including local farmers, bakers, and craftsmen and provides access to fresh local fruits, vegetables, meats, and homemade canned products. The market also helps to keep food dollars local and provides economic opportunities in a depressed economic community. The weekly customer base has also increased from 35 per week in 2017 to about 160 per week in 2020.
The increase in customers is due in part to the partnerships with the Southern University Ag Center, Louisiana State University AgCenter, St. Helena Cattleman's Association, the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA), and the recently launched You SNAP We Match program. Through the program, for each dollar spent on eligible food purchased using the SNAP/EBT card at the market customers receive free tokens to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The SNAP/Match is supported by a one-year grant from the USDA and allows SNAP recipients to increase their fresh fruits and vegetable buying power by making more nutritious foods affordable.
The SNAP Match program allows members of the community to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at a lower cost compared to the grocery store," said Warner Hall, a vendor at the St. Helena Farmers Market. "It is an opportunity to expand and improve my business while interacting directly with the community."
The St. Helena Farmers Market operates every Friday from 8 a.m. - 1 p.m. at the corner of Highway 10 and Highway 43 in Greensburg, La. The market briefly closed due to concerns about COVID-19, but has since reopened with increased safety measures including a handwashing station and customer guidelines which help provide a safe shopping environment for the customers and vendors.