Beginning in June, some farmers’ markets on the Sunshine Coast start trading in colourful currency. Bright green, blue and red coupons worth three dollars each are exchanged with vendors for local fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs.
People who would otherwise struggle to afford the higher price of farm fresh, local produce are the coupon recipients. One such recipient, Jen Lee, uses them at the Sechelt Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market to feed herself and her 18-month-old girl.
“I’ve always been really concerned about food security for myself, local food being really important, but when you start breastfeeding and you have a baby, all of a sudden it makes even more sense,” said Lee during a visit at Ruby’s Run urban farm, one of her go-to vendors at the Sechelt market.
The coupons are the end point of a program overseen by the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets (BCAFM), the provincial government and the provincial Health Services Authority, as well as community donors. The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program is intended for lower-income families, pregnant women and seniors, who have difficulty accessing quality fresh produce.
It’s a popular program on the Coast, but according to organizers, the need surpasses the spaces available. For example, the Sechelt Seniors Program is at capacity with 18 seniors. About 80 families are supported through the program on the Coast, and about about $15,000 worth of coupons are expected to flow through the farmers’ market in Sechelt, up from $12,000 last year. “Local groups are reporting there is more need than they have coupons for,” Steve Bastien, site manager at the Sechelt market who helps oversee the program, said in an email. An information package about the program said the funds are “just a drop in the bucket for families.”
Eligible households receive a minimum of $21 worth of coupons to spend each week at their local farmers’ market for 16 weeks starting in June. Coupons are distributed to households by participating community partners.
Along with 56 other communities across B.C., three markets participate on the Sunshine Coast: the Sechelt market, Farm Gate Market in Roberts Creek and Gibsons’ Friday Market. Coupons can be spent at all participating markets and vendors are compensated for the value of the coupons.
Urban farmer Michelle Young, who also sits on the board of the Sechelt Farmers’ and Artsians’ Market, grows almost exclusively for the Sechelt market, and said the coupons help keep grocery dollars in the community. To prove it, the organizers tracked the circulation of $1,430 worth of coupons. The market raised the money to purchase those coupons through a raffle, barbecue and private donations. Young said more than 90 per cent of those coupons stayed within the community. The market is holding another raffle this August.
While the coupons are good for her business, Young said they also allow her to connect with her customers. “I get to see them all the time and identify with them more,” said Young of the people who use coupons. That includes Lee, who frequents Young’s market stall.
Lee learned about the coupons through the Bellies and Babies Infant Development Program, offered by Sunshine Coast Community Services. It is one of six local organizations that distribute the coupons to eligible households. “A lot of the government programs can make you feel like you’re having to pull hard for help,” said Lee. She said the coupons give her another resource without judgment. “It’s really compassionate and empathetic, so it didn’t feel to me like it was a handout or something I had to apply or beg for.”
For her, the program provides her a political tool to prioritize spending on local businesses. “Do I have a lot of financial power? No, not every day,” said Lee before adding, “I feel like I’m voting when I take my coupons to the market.”