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County needy denied benefits

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

By Ken Ross, Managing Editor

Coupons totaling $28 per month for fresh fruits and vegetables may not seem like much, but to low income seniors and mothers of preschool children, that amount can make a difference in the nutrition they receive.

This assistance is available through a federal program but not to Cherokee County residents. The Farmers Market Nutrition Program of the Iowa Department of Agriculture Land Stewardship (IDALS), the state agency that administers the federally funded program, has decided that farmers markets in Cherokee and other counties do not qualify for use of coupons for fresh produce, a situation that has many in those counties fuming.

"We're not going to stop until we get something done," said Lori Sokolowski, state board member of the Iowa Farmer's Union and a resident of the rural Holstein.

The 14 $2 coupons are provided to qualifying individuals through two programs, a senior nutrition program and the Women Infants and Children's (WIC) program, but only to residents of counties with a certified farmers market.

Among the rules for certifying a farmers market is to have at least three certified vendors at the market. To be a certified vendor, a person must take a course on the proper handling and display of produce and must have grown at least half of what the vendor sells. A certified vendor may accept the coupons and deposit them in a bank, like cash.

A farmers market began last year in Cherokee and will continue this year with more than the required number of certified vendors but it appears that Cherokee won't have a certified market this year, not if Mike Bevins of the Horticulture and Farmers Market Bureau and Margaret Long, Farmers' Market Nutrition Program administrator, have the last word on the matter.

Rather than working toward increasing the availability of certified markets, IDALS has toughened the requirements for certification and reduced the number of counties with certified markets for the coming season. Last year, only $1.2 million of the $1.5 million allocated by the federal government to Iowa for the program was used by the program.

The rationale given for the more stringent rules was the fear of fraud within the program. These more stringent rules are not mandated by the federal government, which funds the program, but rather are established administratively within the state agency.

Although the organizers of the farmers market in Cherokee had or were expected to meet state requirements for certification by the opening of the season, the application to the state for certification was returned from Margaret Long's office with the message, "Cherokee will not be authorized this year, We will evaluate it for 2006." There was no further explanation of what, Sokolowski regards as an arbitrary decision.

However, Bevins and Long might not have the final word on the matter.

The manner in which IDALS handled farmers markets has resulted in a protest in many parts of the state that has been made known to state legislators.

"This issue has been taken out of the closet," Sokolowski said.

This year, the state senate passed senate file 275, titled "An act requiring the department of agriculture and land stewardship to revise certain application requirements applicable to the women, infants, and children Iowa farmers market nutrition program and the senior farmers market nutrition program and providing an effective date."

This bill was intended to reverse the more restrictive policies for farmers markets. However the house bill was killed in committee without being brought to the floor.

Another house committee decided to hold hearings on the matter recently in the state capitol in Des Moines. Sokolowski was among the witnesses who testified on behalf of less restrictive farmers market requirements.

"The issue of fraud was brought up several times," Sokolowski noted in her statement before the house committee, "We have asked IDALS to provide documentation of this fraud several times. They have never been able to produce any. I don't believe this is a problem but an excuse designed to scare people into supporting a bad rule change."

Sokolowski also had criticism as to how rules are applied that are inconsistent with the stated purpose of the rules.

The availability of the coupons in Cherokee County could not only help those in need of such assistance but improve the long-term viability of the farmers market in Cherokee.

A strong message was sent to IDALS to work with the farmers markets but whether this message was strong enough or soon enough to affect the local market this summer remains to be seen.

"They should have been working with us in the first place," Sokolowski said.

She also commented on the need for an audit to determine where the federal money not spent for the specific program goes and how much administrative cost is used in the program.

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