Farmers markets an option for low-income residents

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SCHENECTADY — Hamilton Hill doesn’t have a grocery store. 

Neither do most of the city’s neighborhoods.

In fact, there are only a handful of supermarkets located within city limits, including a Price Chopper on Eastern Avenue, Aldi on State Street, and Price Rite on the Crosstown. 

The lack of healthy food options in neighborhoods has been pointed out during the prolonged public debate over a liquor store, and residents have repeatedly stressed the need for one.

“There’s no regular full service grocery store within reasonable walking distance,” said Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of Schenectady Community Ministries (SICM).

While corner stores are prolific, options can be unhealthy and limited.

Fresh produce is available at the SICM Food Pantry on Albany Street, stored in coolers funded with support from the county Health Department.

But it can be easy to overlook that fruits and vegetables are available twice weekly at a pair of downtown outdoor markets, both of which accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. 

Community leaders acknowledge the Schenectady Green Market (Sundays) and Schenectady County Downtown Farmer’s Market (Thursdays) can be an underutilized resource for low-income residents and senior citizens. 

“Many people in Hamilton Hill don’t know they can get vouchers to go to the farmer’s market,” said Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association President Marva Isaacs.

The county also distributes Farmers’ Market coupons for those 60 and over and income-eligible county residents from the Schaffer Heights Building on Nott Terrace.

At the markets, customers may use credit or debit cards to purchase $5 tokens or their EBT cards to purchase $1 tokens.

“Not only do we accept EBT, we work quite diligently to promote and make people aware we accept EBT,” said Leesa Perazzo, chairwoman of the Schenectady Greenmarket Board of Directors. “It’s a very important part of our mission.”

Perazzo said patrons “absolutely” use EBT cards, with usage peaking at the beginning of the month.

“In cashiering for a couple hours, sometimes I’ll check out between 10 and 15 customers,” said Perazzo, who is also a city council member. 

The state’s FreshConnect program offers subsidies by providing a $2 supplemental coupon for every $5 purchased through EDT.

Doing so can help defray what can be higher costs for locally-grown food, Perazzo said, while at the same time supporting local farmers and sustainable agriculture. 

Despite the benefits, Perazzo and Isaacs concede transportation can present a challenge. 

The Schenectady Greenmarket, she said, would like to work with the county and Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) to develop a shuttle service between the city’s neighborhoods and the market. 

And she acknowledged the market is not a replacement for a supermarket. 

“But I think we can provide an important service lacking without us being here,” she said. 

Robert Harvey, president of Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association, previously floated the idea of pop-up space selling fresh produce at 837 Eastern Ave., the pending site of a new liquor store.

He, too, acknowledged transportation to grocery stores could be challenging, noting changes in CDTA schedules over the years has lengthened the amount of time for some routes containing market stops.

Harvey encouraged the authorities to look at federal grant opportunities to help fund transportation programs.

“It is a way to get people out of the food desert and to places where they have food,” he said. 

Schenectady County is mindful of the challenges: the county received a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant in 2014 for a study designed to improve access to healthy food options.

A report was issued in 2017, but a status update on the plan’s implementation was not immediately available on Wednesday. 

The county previously launched a mobile phone app, Food4Schdy, that points users toward the nearest food pantries, meal programs or retailers accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

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