Hoophouses for Health
Bringing together low-income community members with farmers, Hoophouses for Health is about nutrition, education, opportunity, and accessibility to fresh, Michigan-grown produce. Through this program, farmers get loans to build hoophouses that allow them to extend their growing season; low-income families can then purchase the food grown through a voucher system.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of its purpose and who it serves.
Michigan Farmers Market Association Director Dru Montri
: We aim to introduce low-income families to their local farmers market and provide them with the resources they need to utilize more fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet. Evidence suggests that when low-income families have access to retail outlets that provide affordable, nutritious foods, they make healthier food choices and have better health outcomes. This program serves farmers selling at participating farmers markets, along with parents and children who participate in Head Start programs located near these farmers markets.
What really differentiates this program?
There are a lot of innovative programs that support the development of children and help to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables to food-insecure residents living in low-income communities. Our program is really unique in the fact that we aim to help build and expand the production capacity of Michigan’s farmers by helping them add hoophouses to their farms.
A hoophouse is an unheated, plastic-covered structure that gives farmers the ability to extend their growing season;
Evidence suggests that when low-income families have access to retail outlets that provide affordable, nutritious foods, they make healthier food choices and have better health outcomes.
hoophouses allow farmers to grow cold-tolerant vegetables all winter long. Farmers are able to build these hoophouses with loans (through Hoophouses for Health) that they do not pay back with cash; they repay their zero-interest, five-year hoophouse loans by accepting vouchers as payment for the food they sell at the farmers markets. The dollar figures of the food that farmers distribute to the low-income individuals who use their vouchers to buy it is subtracted from their loans until they are paid off.
This is a creative way to be able to eat locally year-round in Michigan and a great strategy to give parents and kids accessibility to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to their diets.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Farmers initially found this way of paying back loans as intimidating. They didn’t know if it would work. But, just a year into the program, they are really getting it. The barter and trade system allows them to expand their growing system.
This year, we partnered with the Michigan Head Start Association to distribute vouchers to families of local Head Start agencies; the parents buy food with their vouchers from participating farmers at their local farmers market. The kids learn about the importance of good nutrition in school, and pass it on to their families. It’s a trickle-up success method. Everyone involved benefits.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
Next year, we need to substantially increase our education and outreach efforts to provide Head Start families not only with the resources they need to be able to purchase healthy foods from the farmers markets, but also with the knowledge and hands-on experience of how to shop at a market; what to buy, how much to buy, and how to prepare simple, healthy meals.
We plan to work more closely with local Head Start agencies, collaborate with more partners, and coordinate special events for families in an effort to learn how to best manage our growth.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Although we are still compiling survey and evaluation data from 2012, we learned that many Head Start families are not yet regular farmer’s market shoppers. However, they are interested in using farm fresh ingredients and parents would like to cook healthy meals for their families.
In 2012, we implemented the program at farmers markets in Marquette, Saginaw, Battle Creek, and Ypsilanti, and from the success and interest we’ve seen in those communities, we know this is going to work. It’s amazing how many farmers, food
The kids learn about the importance of good nutrition in school, and pass it on to their families. It's a trickle-up success method.
security advocates, market managers, Head Start agencies, and individuals have contacted us to find out how to get involved.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
We learned how difficult it is to explain just how this program works and to get people on board. How to explain it in a simple way using language and terminology to explain the concept.
It takes a lot of planning to educate people, but we have given out 22 loans to date to farmers who are really receptive to the benefits of this pilot process. Also, of course, there is a budget to consider. We have not yet defined the additional markets that we’ll add in 2013, and we want to include as many farmers, schools, and individuals as possible, but we must find the time and funding to be able to that. We learned lots of lessons about limitations this year.