Wholesome Wave: Making Healthy, Local Produce Available to Everyone

By: Aaron Conley

At the entrance to the Athens Farmers Market two people are exchanging money for small, wooden tokens to be used at the various tents; one person swipes a platinum Visa card, the other uses a government issued EBT card.

The second individual is taking advantage of a program run through an organization called Wholesome Wave. That program doubles the value of food stamps when they are used to purchase food at local farmers markets.

According to its website, Wholesome Wave is a national nonprofit organization founded in 2007, and arrived at the Athens Farmers Market in the spring of 2010.

“The program lets me bring healthy food into my home,” said Tia Brown, a young mother of two on government assistance. “It has been a really great opportunity.”

The program is an new twist on the locavore movement, which encourages businesses and individuals to utilize food grown within a 100-mile radius. The campaign spawned from an interest in sustainability and eco-consciousness.

Accroding to Jan Kozak, director of the Athens Farmers Market, the Wholesome Wave program has been extremely successful. Last year, the $30000 of food stamp business at the market was the highest in the state of Georgia.

“That is just a drop in the pan,” he said. “We have already set a higher goal for this year, $32500.”

In Athens, the locavore movement could originally be best seen in restaurants.
According to leaders in the local restaurant industry, many of Athens’ fine dining options, such as Five & Ten, The National and Farm 255 focused on providing menu items sourced from Northeast Georgia farms. Other eateries soon began to follow suit by beginning to follow a similar plan.

Soon, the Athens Farmers Market extended the locavore movement into homes. Once local farms and gardens had a venue to sell their produce, it became much easier for Athens residents to eat sustainable, local fruits and vegetables.

When the Athens Farmers Market opened last weekend, it opened to one of the biggest crowds it had ever seen.

“There were almost 2500 shoppers this weekend,” said Randy, who has counted at every farmers market for more than two years. “The only other time that there have been more than 2000 people was on opening day last spring.”

The large number on opening day was a good sign for the growing farmers market. Since the market started, it has continued to grow and has quickly become a significant part of the Athens Community.

The Athens Farmers Market has not only grown in size over the past four years, but it has also grown in scope.

“When I took over the market in 2010, I brought Wholesome Wave with me,” said Jan Kozak. “Before I came into that position, I was already involved at Wholesome Wave Georgia.”

Kozak is still involved with the day-to-day operations of the organization, where he is currently the secretary.

He described the expansion of Wholesome Wave into Georiga, saying that it was spearheaded by a group of high-profile chefs in Atlanta, and had already spread to markets in Savannah by the time it came to Athens.

“The goal of the program is to support better food access for everyone,” Kozak said. “People making decisions on food on price are forced into buying lower quality food.”

While the food that is usually purchased on food stamps typically has a higher fat content, and more calories, the food that can be purchased at local farmers markets is much healthier.

“Wholesome Wave encourages food stamp recipients to think about food differently,” Kozak said. “Using EBT points at the Athens Farmers Market should hopefully create better outcomes, and ultimately better lives for those people.”

He also described benefits of the program that extend into the entire Athens community.

Typically, the food stamps are spent at big box and convenience stores. In the state of Georga, that is more than $2 billion every year. Wholesome Wave works to divert that money.

“The program really provides a double-sided benefit with consumer and producer impacts,” Kozak said. “Not only are low income members of the community eating better, they are also spending their money in a way that benefits the local economy.”

Along with doubling EBT values, the Athens Farmers Market provides other helpful services as well. Almost every week, there are cooking demonstrations put on by local farmers and businesses. Those sessions are designed to educate everyone in the community on what is fresh, and how to cook with produce that they may not have prior experience with.

Wholesome Wave has also started publication on cookbook in the form of a monthly magazine, titled Crop Stories. Each issue focuses on one particular crop, providing recipes and different healthy ways to prepare it.

In the near future, Kozak described plans to grow the Athens Farmers Market.

“We would love to expand into a larger space, so that we can continue to grow in terms of both shoppers and producers,” he said. “We would also love to get a roof over our heads, so that the market can operate in inclement weather.”

As well as growing in size, Kozak expressed the hope that the farmers market will grow in terms of strengthening the connection between consumers and producers in the Athens community.

He also plans for Wholesome Wave to grow along side the market.

“Right now, outreach is our main focus, as well as our biggest challenge,” Kozak said. “Traditional outreach and advertising is expensive, so we have found some different methods to get the word out.”

Along with starting online campaigns on social media, the program is relying heavily on word of mouth.

“Every week, we focus all of our effort to put on the best market that we can,” Kozak said. “If we do that, hopefully people will tell their friends, and we will have new shoppers the next week.”

Even with new growth and development, the overall goal of Wholesome Wave will not change.

“Ultimately, what we are after is getting better food into everyone’s lives, regardless of their income,” Kozak said. “Good, healthy food is a basic human right, not a privilege.”

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