Houston Link to Learning held its first farmers’ market of the season June 5 with appropriate measures from COVID-19 health measure guidance.
There had been some doubt in early spring as to whether farmers’ markets would be allowed to open this year but the provincial government’s phased-in re-start plan is permitting certain activities to proceed.
Crucially, all vendors and not just ones selling food can participate, said Houston Link to Learning’s Marian Ells.
There’s now appropriate physical distancing space between vendors, hand sanitizing stations and one way in and one way out, she added.
“We are happy this is moving ahead but there are definitely challenges. All the new rules are taking a lot more staff time and money which we are trying to figure out without raising any costs to our vendors but it is a challenge,” Ells said.
Also on the positive side is an increase in the dollar value of the market’s program in which lower income families and individuals can purchase local food by presenting coupons to vendors. The vendors then turn in the coupons for reimbursement.
“This is not only great for the families that receive them but also for the market vendors. Total amount of coupons that will be distributed this year is $15,130 which is up from $12,000 last year,” said Ells.
The program is financed by the provincial government.
Each coupon is worth $21 and qualified recipients last year were eligible to receive a booklet for each of the 21 weeks the farmers’ market was in operation.
The coupons cover vegetables, dairy products and, when available, meat.
Last year Houston Link to Learning provided weekly booklets to 25 qualified recipients with additional booklets distributed through the Dze LK’ant Friendship Centre based in Smithers. The friendship centre allocation has now increased to 20.
Earlier this year the District of Houston wrote a letter to the province supporting the coupon program.
Aside from the farmers’ market, Houston Link to Learning is embarking upon a new project connected to food security — a greenhouse at its North Copeland Ave. community garden location which is leased to it by the District.
“It’s something we have wanted at the garden for a long time. The project is called ‘Growing Wellness’ and is a collaboration between Houston Link to Learning, Mental Health and Addictions/Houston Health Centre and Houston Community Services,” said Ells.
The District amended its lease to allow for the greenhouse construction which is being financed by a $4,400 grant from Northern Health and a $3,000 from the Dungate Community Forest.
“The greenhouse will be used by all agencies and will provide a safe space for staff to connect with clients and provide therapeutic horticulture,” said Ells.
She also reports an increase in people using the two community garden locations this year.
“We have 47 raised beds in two locations in the community and many first time growers which is fabulous. Again we are challenged with all the extra time that running a program takes during the current crisis,” said Ells.
Houston Link to Learning is also waiting to hear if it’ll receive a summer student hiring grant meaning that for the interim, it means an additional workload for current staffers.
Specific to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston Link to Learning is continuing with its recipe and food bag pick up program offered every two weeks.
It was instituted to replace in-house food preparation, something not allowed due to the pandemic, but the budget for it runs out the end of this month.
“We have applied to several COVID-19 funds for help with this and we are waiting to hear,” said Ells.