“They are getting extremely fresh, high-quality products, which is something that the SNAP program really strives for anyway,” said Kristine Cahall, program coordinator for Sidestreams Foundation.
Sidestreams Foundation is the parent organization for 500 Gardens, an urban agriculture project that strives to teach Madisonville residents and business leaders how to grow their own vegetables. Sidestreams partners with Lighthouse Community School to facilitate job training for youth while providing fresh produce for the community.
Lighthouse is a charter school operating through Lighthouse Youth Services as an educational institution for youths in the child welfare system.
Lighthouse school staff and students created the Madisonville Community Garden in 2012 as part of an urban agriculture program. The class is a high school elective through which students can earn a half-credit for science and a half-credit for social studies.
The program started out with a small group of garden boxes and a chicken coop. It now features 64 raised bed gardens, a chicken coop and an example garden bed used for teaching through 500 Gardens.
“The market really is also an educational opportunity, not just for the Lighthouse youth we have working, but for the entire community,” Cahall said.
While community members can learn how to grow their own food, students in Lighthouse’s urban agriculture program are responsible for maintaining the garden and running the market. In addition to the class offered during the school year, the program includes summer work opportunities for middle- and high school students.
Through the experience, the youths learn how to make and use compost, plant seeds, maintain and harvest crops and build chicken coops.
“The kids really do get invested in the garden,” said Geoff Becker, who teaches the urban agriculture program.
Students also learn about weights and measures, customer service and handling money while selling vegetables, eggs and portable chicken coops at the market. The money from produce sales goes toward paying the students and funding the urban agriculture program.
“I think that the students see an example of what hard work feels like,” Becker said.
He hopes to eventually develop the program into a “true work study program, where the kids would get a stipend.”
The card-reading technology, which is funded for the next three years through the Farmers Market Coalition, adds a new learning component, teaching kids how to use an electronic transfer swipe pad.
The technology has potential to not only provide learning opportunities, but access to fresh produce.
With no major grocery store within one mile of the community’s geographic center, Madisonville is designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert.” For community members living in a food desert, access to healthy foods is limited without a car or a bus transfer.
Only two customers have used SNAP benefits so far, but several have taken advantage of the credit card reader.
“We’re about bringing people together surrounding issues of food justice, and that’s kind of what’s being done here with this first transaction,” Cahall said.
As more people learn about the new payment options available at the market, Cahall and Becker hope to fill the gap, especially for low-income residents, who rely on SNAP benefits.
“I hope to see more community involvement because it’s going to be easier for the community to be part of the garden,” Becker said.
The Madisonville Garden Market operates at the community garden, 6001 Chandler St., from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.