By Jake Gehrung for the NH Food Alliance
There are many challenges today creating a divide between potential customers and local food outlets. In response, there has been an effort to develop new channels in our local New Hampshire food system to address some of these barriers. One of these new channels is the Seacoast Area Mobile Market, also known as SAMM. Over the past three years, SAMM has made it easier for people to put locally grown produce on their plates. Seacoast Eat Local, the home of SAMM, promotes the mobile market as an ambassador of local food producers across the Seacoast. Their vision for SAMM is to bring a welcoming farmer’s market experience straight to communities that have a higher risk of food insecurity, that lack consistent transportation, or that face other challenges.
Just getting to the local food hub or farmers market can be an obstacle for some, especially living in a largely rural state like New Hampshire. Many people also work long hours and don’t have time to access these outlets. A lot of residents simply can’t justify the high cost of local food in their budgets, especially with the minimum wage stagnant at $7.25 an hour. In particular, the elderly and those with disabilities often face a combination of all these challenges.
SAMM’s champion, Celeste Gingras, is a local food system leader who is passionate about nutritious local food and supporting the farmers that make it possible. Those in the Seacoast may also know Celeste as the co-owner of Somersworth’s popular 45 Market Street Bakery & Cafe. Her bakery is a major inspiration for her work with Seacoast Eat Local.
Celeste notes, “Having owned a small business for a very long time, I think that it’s really important to support each other in whatever way that is.”
Celeste decided that the best way she could support local farmers was by beginning New Hampshire’s very first mobile market. Having researched other mobile markets, she retrofitted a Ford F-350 bus and opened for business. Celeste has strategically established regular stops that allow her to bring local food to residents across the Seacoast who otherwise lack access, making it possible for local customers to enjoy farm fresh products. She supports the food system year round, but says the mobile market season is most demanding. “Once my season starts,” she says, “my days are no shorter than 10 hours.”
Celeste knows that people facing food insecurity are interested in purchasing local food, but their interest is not always apparent to farmers. Local farmers perceive demand based on what they sell, so if low-income customers cannot buy their products, they might assume disinterest and decide to grow less next season. The SAMM van creates opportunities for Seacoast farmers to reach new faces, and maybe even gain a loyal customer for seasons to come.
As Celeste says, “I want small farms to continue, I want them to be able to be sustainable in New Hampshire and continue to grow.”
One crucial benefit that SAMM offers to customers is that shoppers are able, and encouraged, to spend their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously called Food Stamps) dollars at the mobile market. Accepting SNAP at markets allows food producers to reach over 92,000 people in our state who receive SNAP benefits.SNAP recipients are even able to get a two for one deal on fresh fruits and vegetables as part of the statewide Granite State Market Match program. Spending $10 with SNAP, for example, means you’ll get an extra $10 for those juicy heirloom tomatoes or ripe red raspberries. Another benefit pointed out by Celeste is that, “SNAP is national…so anybody can come with any state’s SNAP card and they can use it on the bus.”
Beyond offering SNAP benefits, the mobile market is used to share valuable information about food options and programs. Celeste is always happy to tell people about the fruits and vegetables in season and how they can be prepared. She also helps her customers learn more about SNAP options and how to use them at her market. Through UNH Extension programs like Nutrition Connections, Celeste has collaborated in broader efforts to provide educational opportunities in our state.
“We’re trying to teach people how to eat and how to identify vegetables that they may not know what it is, and maybe learn over time and not feel like it’s so overwhelming,” she says.
The SAMM van also partners with local businesses to offer their services as an employee incentive, and provide vouchers to those businesses for employees to use. All of these pieces add up to more fresh, healthy food on more peoples’ plates.
Due to COVID-19, SAMM has shifted programming efforts for the 2020 season towards donating fresh local food to senior housing centers and food pantries. These are populations that have been heavily affected and are in need now more than ever. SAMM is purchasing fresh local food directly from farms and delivering large qualities to food pantries to disperse to pantry visitors. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, the NH Charitable Foundation, Gather, and several individual donors have all generously contributed to make this food donation model possible.
Without adequate food access channels and programs in place, our communities cannot enjoy local food options. The recent onset of the COVID-19 outbreak has underscored this, as more people are forced to stay home and have tighter budgets during the economic downturn. The crisis has also created marketing challenges for food producers who might struggle to connect with customers. Robust local food systems empower communities to be healthier and gives them the ability to recover from challenges like COVID-19 and disruptions from the climate crisis. The SAMM van delivers reliable, affordable local food options in such a time of crisis and increases the resilience of our communities overall.
As Celeste puts it, “As big as this bus is, it’s never big enough.”
Photography by Emily Vaughn for the NH Food Alliance