We all know it’s crucial to maintain a healthy diet, but why is it especially important during the current pandemic? Plus, how is the coronavirus impacting our local food economy? Michelle Shippy is a Registered Dietitian and the Nutrition Incentive Program Manager in the Chronic Disease Department at the Marion County Public Health Department. We chatted with Michelle, to learn the importance of staying healthy and what our local food economy looks like now and beyond. Read on below to learn more.
Q. Why is maintaining a healthy diet important, especially at this time?
Maintaining a healthy eating pattern is always crucial for the prevention and management of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. As shown in the findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID – 19, proper nutrition is becoming even more essential for keeping that at-risk healthy. Nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, provide vitamins and minerals that are vital for our bodies, including our immune systems.
Q. What tips do you have for staying healthy during the pandemic?
First and foremost, everyone needs to follow the CDC’s recommendations for preventing the spread of coronavirus. Practicing social distancing and following the at-home orders from Governor Holcomb are the best ways you can protect yourself. Due to the stay-at-home orders, it is even more important to do things to stay healthy mentally, emotionally, and physically. This includes getting fruits and vegetables in your meals and snacks for the entire household, heading outside for a walk or bike ride, and staying connected to family and friends.
Q. How are local farmers and vendors being impacted right now?
There are many reasons to support our local farmers, in general, and during this pandemic. Purchasing farm-fresh food helps to support your local food economy. Plus, customers receive more nutrient-dense foods since they are freshly harvested.
Farmer’s markets in Marion County will be reopening but will follow precautionary guidelines from the Marion County Public Health Department. Additionally, the Food and Consumer Safety Department will enforce social distancing measures, allowing only essential food and hygiene items to be sold. At this time, it is hard to predict how these new measures and guidelines, including new physical layouts, will impact vendors.
Many farmers and vendors are now selling their products online. However, many don’t have the resources to do so. One problem with online selling is the limit to only credit/debit payments. Therefore, SNAP/EBT cannot be processed, limiting the opportunity for an entire population to have access to farm-fresh foods. There has been discussion, however, on allowing SNAP customers to select the “pay later” option when they place their order. Then, when they pick up their orders they can pay with their EBT card.
Several additional programs are helping SNAP recipients to have access to fresh and local food. The Fresh Bucks program matches SNAP transactions, up to $20, for the purchase of more fresh produce. By June of 2020, the WIC Program will start “WIC Days,” distributing their Farmers Market Nutrition Program checks to their clients as another form of payment for local produce.
Q. How might this pandemic impact the future of the local food industry?
We are still learning about this issue. Nationally, the entire food system has been impacted, including produce, livestock, dairy, and so much more. Locally, we haven’t heard from any farmers who have indicated any struggles with the closure of the winter farmers’ markets and businesses like restaurants and schools. As summer crops become more abundant in Indiana, we are unsure what the next few months will look like.
The USDA just announced a Food Assistance Program that would allow specialty crop farmers to sell their produce directly to the USDA. Regional and local distributors will then be responsible for distributing the produce to food banks and other organizations serving communities in need. Here in Indianapolis, we are doing the same thing on a smaller scale. The Marion County Public Health Department has partnered with Growing Places Indy to utilize our Fresh Bucks funds provided by IU Health. We will continue to offer this opportunity, as there is a need and a supply from farmers.
Q. What steps can people take to help the industry?
Many farmers have set up online systems for people to place orders online and pick up at designated locations. There is a possibility that an online system will be expanded into farmer’s markets, allowing orders to be picked up directly from these market locations. One of the best ways you can support your local farmers, and local food economy, is to shop online or in-store for local products. Markets will continue to process SNAP transactions on-site with safety measures in place for the customers, vendors, and staff/volunteers. The Fresh Bucks program will also continue to operate with extra precautions put in place.
For families on SNAP that would like to use their EBT benefits to purchase healthy, fresh foods from market vendors can get started by visiting the information table located at the entrance of each market. For more information and a list of Fresh Bucks market locations, visit freshbuckindy.org. To find out about specific farmer’s market locations, visit the locations page here.
We also have a dashboard on our website that can be referenced too: http://marionhealth.org/covid-