A local grassroots group is looking to get $10,000 in the pockets of local farmers, and fresh fruits and vegetables in the bags of seniors and families.
The Kenai Local Food Connection, a group that celebrates and promotes local food, has partnered with the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank to start the DoubleUp Farm-Fresh Produce Program at four farmers markets on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Heidi Chay, a volunteer with Kenai Local Food Connection and organizer of DoubleUp, said the program was started in April as a response to the new coronavirus pandemic and came together quickly.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services gives $30 coupons to those qualifying for the Women, Infants and Children Program or those qualifying for the Senior Farmers Nutrition Program.
Chay said $17,000 in coupons was given to central Kenai Peninsula residents in 2019. DoubleUp wants to give an additional $30 coupon to those redeeming coupons at farmers markets.
Chay said Kenai Local Food Connection is looking to raise $10,000 for the effort.
“The reason is of those $17,000 in coupons distributed, I think only about $9,000 were actually redeemed,” Chay said.
Chay said many may not want to go to a farmers market just to redeem a $30 coupon. The extra $30 may entice them to the market. There are nine central peninsula farms certified by the state to receive the coupons, meaning DoubleUp could mean about $1,000 more each for the farms.
“For a small business, an extra $1,000 in sales is valuable,” Chay said. “Even more important, we’re making high-quality, fresh produce accessible for people for whom it may be out of reach.”
Chay said she’d like the program to reach at least 200 households.
Of the central peninsula operations, Kasilof’s Grace Acres Farm receives the most coupons, according to Chay.
Christina Land of Grace Acres was set up at the Farmers Fresh Market at the Food Bank on Tuesday with beets, radishes, zucchini, cabbages, Swiss chard, eggs and assorted kales and mustards.
Grace Acres also attends the Soldotna Wednesday Market, the Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market, and sells produce at Mile 110.2 of the Sterling Highway on Mondays, Thursdays, Friday, Sundays and some Saturdays.
Land said she’s excited about DoubleUp and has already collected a lot of the additional $30 coupons.
“I can make people twice as happy,” she said. “The income helps too, but I don’t think it will make or break us.”
Land said she has never minded stretching the coupons a bit and making them worth a few dollars more.
“I’d rather give it to somebody who’s going to use it,” she said.
Land said her season got off to a slow start due to the new coronavirus. Some of the seed companies the farm relies on shut down completely. As restrictions on farmers markets have eased, Land said business has picked up.
Right now, she said sales are slightly ahead of last year. While out-of-state tourists have dropped, Land said in-state tourism has picked up. She pointed to packed campgrounds in Kasilof over the Fourth of July weekend.
“People from Anchorage and Palmer are coming down here because it’s not as crowded,” Land said. “A lot of them have been cooped up. A lot more people also want to support local.”
Chay and Lane also said Grace Acres is about to take a big step forward for central peninsula farmers by beginning to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards. SNAP is a federal nutrition assistance program.
Sterling’s Alex Villa of Valley’s Bounty Produce had tomatoes and cucumbers set up Wednesday. Villa said produce right now is coming from family in the Valley, but some of the things he is growing locally will soon be available.
He also is a fan of DoubleUp.
“This helps quite a bit, especially during these times,” he said. “We don’t have as many tourists and there’s not as many people out. Because of that, sales are down.
“We still have expenses and still have bills to pay, so every little bit helps.”
In addition to the Farmers Fresh Market, Villa also goes to the Soldotna Wednesday Market and the Old Town Marketplace on Fridays and Saturdays.
In addition to money, Villa likes the publicity DoubleUp is providing the coupon programs.
“I’m hoping the word gets out,” he said. “A lot of the problem with the program is people don’t know about it.
“The healthier we eat, the better off we’re going to be.”
DoubleUp coupons are available at the Farmers Fresh Market at the Food Bank on Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m., and at the Food Bank on Monday through Friday from 12 to 4 p.m. Those getting DoubleUp coupons should bring their WIC or Senior Farmers Nutrition Program coupons with them.
The participating farmers can be found at:
• Farmers Fresh Market at Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m.
• Soldotna Wednesday Market from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Soldotna Creek Park.
• Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the intersection of Kenai Spur Highway and East Corral Avenue.
• Old Town Marketplace on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 517 Main St. in Kenai.
Chay said donations for DoubleUp came from the Carver Family Foundation, Kenai Peninsula Foundation, Kenai Peninsula Chapter of the Alaska Farm Bureau, Christ Lutheran Church and Bishop’s Attic.