Food navigators serve healthy food to people

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspiring articles for people providing evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. Made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

While many farmers’ markets draw people to their locations to buy fresh, local fruits and vegetables, Aimee Saint-Germain brings the farmers’ market to the people. K Farmers Market Food Browser (FMFN)On Thursdays, Saint-Germain operates a farmers’ market in Muskegon, but knows that not everyone can make it to the market when she’s there. So, on the first three Mondays of the month, you’ll find her cruising the Muskegon Heights at YMCA Veggie Van, a mobile farm platform. Neighbors can catch her up at Scott Meats, where they can shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, pay for them with SNAP benefits, and see how the produce they buy is used, right outside the family-owned butcher shop. The Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) developed the FMFN program to bring dietitians to farmers markets who accept food assistance benefits to help families with tight budgets plan healthy, affordable meals.

Amy Saint Germain.
As a YMCA Nutrition Educator in Greater Grand Rapids, the position of food navigator in Saint Germain, as well as the YMCA Supplemental Nutrition Education Programs (SNAP-Ed), is made possible through SNAP-Ed funding from MFF. MFF is the implementing agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the educational component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is a USDA education program that teaches SNAP-eligible people how to live a healthier life. The MFF offers scholarships to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

The YMCA of Grand Rapids is expanding SNAP-Ed programming to Muskegon neighborhoods to supplement the work of the Muskegon YMCA.

“It was very exciting. We learned through our work on SNAP-Ed that people had barriers in accessing fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, and they were also not sure what to do with the products they collected,” Saint-Germain says. “Not everyone has access to a farmers market. So, we started looking at addressing these issues and reached out to convenience stores in the area to see if we could get involved in some way.”

Aimee Saint-Germain speaks to visitors at Muskegon’s farmers market.
The neighborhood food scene consists mostly of corner stores and liquor stores that have little to offer in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. And since COVID-19, public transportation options have declined, making it difficult for people to get to the farmers market or groceries. As a result, many residents rely on corner stores and liquor stores for groceries – and these stores offer little in the way of nutritious and affordable foods.

Known for having the largest meat counter in Muskegon County, Scott Mets jumped in immediately because he understood the value of having a small cart on site, and the role we can play in bringing fresh fruit and vegetables along with our food navigator programs to a neighborhood. Fits naturally.”

By taking the time to assess community needs and access to area stores, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids has gone a step further than providing fresh produce. Instead, they expanded on the FMFN programs they offered at the Muskegon Farmers Market and found a way to implement them and take them on the road to Scott Meats with Veggie Van.

“The Veggie Van goes to Scott Meats three Mondays a month from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but we always stay later because we have a bunch of people waiting,” Saint-Germain says. “I have recipes from MFF’s Michigan Harvest of the Month™ website available and give people a chance to sample them. Week after week people come back and tell me things like, ‘I’ve looked at this site and tried zucchini dip.’ The recipes spark their interest in trying new products and how to use some of the fruits And fresh vegetables from Veggie Van. It just shows that SNAP-Ed is working and that people really appreciate our programs.”

St. Germain sources many of Veggie Van’s fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers and the YMCA’s small Muskegon gardens in Greater Grand Rapids, such as the one planted in front of Y’s office on Third Street.

“Last year, the city renovated Third Street and began laying out these beautiful flower gardens,” says Saint-Germain. “We asked if we could instead put up a botanical garden for our trans residents. For the past two years, we’ve had that garden right outside our office. We pick products for Veggie Van there as well.”

At the Muskegon Farmers Market, St. Germain operates as the FMFN on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. She helps shoppers learn how to choose, use and preserve fresh fruits and vegetables, introduces them to farmers who grow their own food, and explains how food assistance programs work. These include SNAP, WIC, and incentive programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which double the cash amount for fruits and vegetables people can buy using SNAP.

“They really became a community of friends,” Saint-Germain says. “The Michigan Fitness Foundation’s Farmers Market Food Navigator is so much more than a program. It creates community. People meet me at my market stall, almost like a coffee hour. I share nutrition information about fruits and vegetables in season, I share cooking tips, and a sample of The recipe, and we talk to them. I have a lot of seniors who are widowed and looking for new ways to spend their time. They find themselves here connecting with each other. There is a comfort level. They know they can ask questions, share concerns, have fun, and they know it’s a safe environment.”

Aimee Saint-Germain speaks to visitors at Muskegon’s farmers market.
The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids also offers a range of other SNAP-Ed programs in Muskegon. Preschoolers participate in Harvest for Healthy Kids once a month when Y’s SNAP-Ed teachers go to preschool classrooms to introduce kids to fresh fruits and vegetables. They provide Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities™, a curriculum to promote healthy eating and physical activity for six weeks, to approximately 5,000 elementary students in both Grand Rapids and Muskegon. Connect Lessons in Schools, a 12-week classroom-based nutrition education program serving middle and high school students at Muskegon Orchard View High School. Separate, age-appropriate “Cooking Matters” classes engage teens, families, adults, and seniors to teach participants how to shop for and cook healthy meals.

“We have been very intentional and strategic about what we offer. We start from preschool, through school age, middle school, high school, and we have adults and seniors,” says Jennifer Lambert, director of community collaboration, Greater YMCA in Grand Rapids. . “This continuous reinforcement across all age groups is important. We want to inspire everyone to eat healthy and move more, so they can be their best.”

SNAP-Ed catalyzes change in the Muskegon community. St. Germain notes that Scott Mets can see the change and the importance of providing fresh produce. In fact, the store will add its own fresh produce section so that residents will have access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the week. City councilors are looking at ways to keep Muskegon Farmers Market open all year round.

Aimee Saint-Germain speaks to visitors at Muskegon’s farmers market.
They were asking us questions. ‘What would that look like?’ How can we partner and collaborate to create more access to food? These conversations have begun. It’s become a community-wide effort, says Lambert. “It has been really exciting to be a part of something where we can see tangible change. This is happening right in front of our eyes.”

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