Vouchers in short supply

Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Courtesy: 
Waterbury Republican-American
Waterbury, CT

Seniors, farmers benefitted from program

June Ottowall, 67, has been living off Social Security while food prices steadily climb.

So when summer rolls around, the money that Ot­towall gets from the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program — $18 this year — is a small but welcome help.

“We have to do what we can,” said Ottowall, who lives in Naugatuck. “I’ll say to my kids, ‘I have some corn, let’s have a barbecue’.”

Every year, senior citizens and those eligible for the state Women, Infants and Children nutrition program receive a small collection of $3 vouchers to spend at local farmers’ markets. For the past two years, the Connecti­cut Housing and Finance Au­thority has also funded a farmers market program for families with children too old for WIC, said Mark Zotti, a marketing and inspection representative for the state Department of Agriculture.

“They’re benefiting and the farmers are benefiting,” Zotti said. “The local economy is benefiting.”

In some communities, how­ever, fewer people this year are receiving vouchers.

New Opportunities, a social service organization, re­ceived 1,700 books of vouch­ers this year to distribute to area senior centers, housing complexes and patrons at the Brass City Harvest farmers market, said Mary-Kate Gill, director of elder services. The organization distributed about 3,000 books of vouchers worth $15 each last year, gen­erally giving one to eachqualifying person age 60 or older, Gill said.

This year, for the first time ever, the vouchers were gone by the end of the first farmers market in mid-July.

“I’m just feeling the frus­tration of many people who show up in walkers, on canes, looking for vouch­ers,” said Susan Pronovost, CEO of Brass City Harvest. “They’re nearly in tears. They’re really on a fixed in­come and this extra $15, $18 or $30 matters so much to them because they don’t have access to fresh food downtown.”

Naugatuck, like Water­bury, received double the amount of vouchers last year due to a surplus from the year before, Zotti said. The borough also received about 3,000 vouchers last year, allowing most seniors to take two books, for a total value of $30. This year, the senior center is only giving one $18 book each to 750 seniors.

The reduction in vouch­ers hurts the overall mar­kets in locations, like Wa­terbury and Naugatuck, that bring farmers from faraway towns to sell to low-income customers who are redeeming vouchers, Pronovost said.

“They’re looking for those $3 vouchers to make their day, because this is not a high cash market, and so that definitely plays into the future of the farmers market on the Green,” Pronovost said.

State and federal funding has dropped for the WIC and senior farmers market programs, Zotti said.

The senior program is costing the state about $365,000 this year, down about $19,000 from last year. Federal funding should provide an addition­al $89,000, about the same as last year, Zotti said.

The vouchers, however, are printed before the budget is finalized, so the state this spring delivered about 32,000 vouchers to social services offices, the same as last year, Zotti said. Historically, only about 75 percent of the vouchers have been re­deemed, and money can be transferred from other food programs or surplus ad­ministrative funds to plug any shortfalls, Zotti said.

Even if there has been no statewide reduction, some communities, such as Wa­terbury and Naugatuck, say they have received fewer vouchers than they did last year before the second helping of surplus coupons.

“The state has a statewide perspective, so maybe for them it’s not a problem, but for us, locally, it is,” Gill said.

According to the state agriculture department, last year more farmers market vouchers were re­deemed than ever before. Farmers across the state made more than $906,000 from the vouchers.

Pronovost said she is in talks with the state Depart­ment of Agriculture and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy to get more vouchers.

 

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