COLUMN: FreshConnect brings more produce to rural areas; farmers' markets show bountiful harvests of Upstate New York

— With August upon us, farmers' markets and local produce stands are displaying a bountiful harvest. From flowers to peaches to honey and all the makings for a great salad, the markets have something to offer us all. I enjoy visiting the local farmers' market, especially this time of year. It gives local residents an opportunity to see where and who their food comes from and often, customer loyalties are formed, which help sustain farmers for many seasons.

I was happy to support FreshConnect in this budget. This is a new program that was created last year. The legislature set aside funds for rural communities to improve access to locally grown produce through a competitive grant process. Since its beginnings last year, the program has helped fund 34 projects to create 50 locations statewide to improve access. Many locations have been developed near us in Tomkins County, for example. As more people become aware of the program, I hope to see more sites open nearer to us.

According to the Governor's office, New York has more than 560 farmers' markets, a number that has more than doubled in the past 10 years. Farmers' markets benefit city, suburban and rural residents by allowing them more and easier access to fresh food, and also help New York farmers enhance their profit margins (a necessity to family farms who rely on the weather and happen to be in the midst of a serious drought, for example, this year).

FreshConnect was designed to help those with limited supermarket access. Data shows 1.5 million New Yorkers live in areas with limited supermarket access. Expanding fresh food access in underserved communities has been shown to improve nutrition and lower costs related to obesity and diet-related disease while fostering community and economic development. Farmers' markets, youth farm stands, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) drop off sites in underserved areas help achieve this goal, and to further assist, many accept Food Stamps and offer financial nutrition incentives, such as the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. This is a great program designed for participating farmers to accept and redeem coupons for fresh produce.

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