Veggie-Power-Dollar-program-gets-Tulane-PRC-support

'Veggie Power Dollar' program gets Tulane PRC support

It was the smell of barbeque that drew her in. But the discount on fresh vegetables and fruit is what kept New Orleans resident Linda Hughes at the Sankofa Farmers Market one Saturday in February.

"I said, 'Hm. I wonder what's going on,'" said Hughes, who stopped at the market on her way home from her pharmacy. "I actually woke up this morning and said, 'I want some fruit. I'm going to eat healthy.'"

Thanks to a pilot program at Sankofa that matched her food-assistance benefits with tokens to buy fresh produce, Hughes left the farmers market with several bags of fresh greens and new recipes she learned from the market's vendors.

Tulane public health graduate student Bonnie Ruyle also received valuable lessons from the pilot program with Sankofa Community Development Corporation. As an intern with Sankofa, she helped develop the "Veggie Power Dollars" match program that reached dozens of residents, like Hughes. Ruyle was selected for the job through the Tulane Prevention Research Center's (PRC) practicum program, which connects graduate students to community organizations, government agencies and public-health groups for a 300-hour internship. Ruyle said her skills were expanded by helping develop the pilot program, performing data analysis, and working for a nonprofit.

"It opened my eyes even more so to diabetes, heart disease, and nutrition's role in all disease," said Ruyle, whose graduate studies have focused on tropical medicine. "I saw what fruits and vegetables are really available and their value."

Sankofa launched its pilot program this year to match every $10 in government food-assistance benefits spent at the market with $10 in "Veggie Power Dollars" to be spent on fresh fruit and vegetables. The goal was to reach families, particularly families, children and senior citizens, in the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods, Ruyle said. But, unexpectedly, the program drew mostly young adult individuals with food-assistance benefits.

"They were very savvy to it," Ruyle said. "They caught on right away, and they were back every week. And that's great, but that wasn't really the target."

Of the roughly 100 participants in the match program, about 20 percent were either senior citizens or families with children, Ruyle said. The market not only provides foods but also educational elements, by introducing people to different varieties of foods and showing that the costs can be less than in grocery stores.

The pilot program was a good starting point for encouraging people to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, said Rashida Ferdinand, founder and executive director of Sankofa, a community-empowerment organization based in New Orleans' Upper and Lower Ninth Ward.

"It was a success in that we actually created the program, informed the community and served the community, and we realized some things we needed to do," Ferdinand said.

In the future, Sankofa plans to continue the program but tweak it to focus more on outreach to the target populations. That includes increasing connections with senior centers, schools, and offices for social safety net programs like Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. Receiving assistance and resources from Tulane for the pilot "Veggie Dollars" program was helpful, Ferdinand said.

"It's great having that kind of support as a smaller grassroots organization," Ferdinand said. "We can work with a graduate student who has a career-specific interest in working in this area. So there's a level of understanding the mission, the purpose of the work."

By Naomi King, Tulane Prevention Research Center
March 2012

(Photo by Naomi King: New Orleans resident Linda Hughes buys greens from Sankofa Farmers Market vendor Jamal Elhayek in February.)

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