By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune health reporter
Kentucky farmer Michelle Howell is passionate about providing fresh food to all, no matter their income. Recently, on a webinar hosted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, Howell discussed how her farm, Need More Acres Farm in Scottsville, which she owns and operates with her husband Nathan, provides food justice.
Howell’s food story began when as a 7-year-old she experienced trauma and hunger. While attending an at-risk program, a dietitian talked about a local farm and brought in kiwis for the kids to try.
“I’ll never forget her kneeling down, cutting the kiwi, handing me half of it, and gaving me a spoon. As I had that first taste of that kiwi, she said to me, ‘Anytime you have the opportunity to eat fresh and healthy food you should because you’re worth it,’” said Howell.
Later in life, Howell realized that this was the first seed that had been planted which inspired her to her life’s work.
“The truth is we all need to eat more fruits and vegetables, even farmers, even dieticians, even people who focus on nutrition and health,” said Howell.
Organic or non-organic? Small scale or commodity farmer? Niche customer or charity or low-income production? Howell says we sometimes ask too much and lose sight of what is important. “What we miss is that it’s all those things together that build a food system that will feed our communities. This is about long-term growth and being more inclusive in food systems. It’s hard and we can only do it with partnerships,” she said.
Howell believes when we are inclusive of all of Kentucky, all of us benefit.
Need More Acres Farm grows hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables year-round. The farm is Kentucky Proud and is open for shopping on Thursdays.
The Howells participate in a local Community Farm Alliance (CFA) Farmers Market which utilizes the Kentucky Double Dollars program (KDD). At the Farmers Market, the farms band together and accept payments from Women Infant and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP), Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), Big Red Dollars (for WKU students) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is important to Howell, allowing them to be equitable to all income levels.
KDD’s goal is to increase access to local fresh, healthy foods to low-income populations, increase sales and income for Kentucky farmers, and to leverage federal food and nutrition program funds, specifically WIC and SNAP. KDD doubles the first $20 of SNAP/EBT benefits and doubles WIC and SFMNP vouchers.
“Covington Farmers Market (CFM) participates in SNAP, WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program,” said Alexa Abner, Covington Farmers Market Manager. CFM also utilized Kentucky Double Dollars for all three programs.
Howell reaches out to expectant moms with the Fresh Rx for Moms Program. Expectant moms on Medicaid receive $20 in fresh fruits and vegetables each week (up to 40 weeks). She also has a registered dietitian provide a weekly in-season recipe with a pregnancy-specific health tip.
Weekly deliveries of fresh food are made to HOTEL INC’s Manna Mart food pantry. Through a grant, Manna Mart purchases 50 percent of the food the farm brings. The United Way and WellCare of Kentucky helped get the program started. Wanting to give more, Need More Acres Farm began providing taste tests. Being able to watch and sample food that was prepared in front of them helped the clients decide that they liked and wanted fresh foods.
“That connection is a great way to increase the number of fruits and vegetables they were taking,” Howell said.
Discussions with community members and those chronically hungry (consistently using the food pantry), found that access to fresh food was the issue. They found many would be able to pay for food if they could get to it. They began a “Pay-What-You-Can” Co-op, which has been a huge success, Howell said.
Those able to purchase fresh foods, do so at a reduced price or use WIC, Seniors FMNP, or SNAP.
Members pick up the produce once a week and offer feedback.
“We found it was more about the access oftentimes, the connection or the support in the relationships that was really the barrier to fresh foods,” she said.
Begin a discussion with someone about how to make fresh foods available to everyone in Northern Kentucky, Howell suggests. And at the next event you are participating in, offer fresh food from local farms.
“Access to fresh fruits and vegetables and as healthy as possible really speaks loudly to the real future of making this work happen,” Howell said.
Howell also says to consider reaching out to one person, outside of your profession and think of a small project or activity that you can do together. Contact the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky if you are struggling with who you might connect to or ideas. She says to start small, little or no budget, and small in scale, to make sure the idea will work.
“Remember that it’s about relationships. The relationships are what really connect us to making better decisions about what we eat and also about making sure that the work that we do is equitable and in support of other people,” Howell said.
The work the Howells do at Need More Acres Farm is all to help build a better food system for the lower-income members of the community. It can work anywhere.