Kent’s Haymaker Farmers’ Market is now giving anyone with a WIC card two $5 vouchers to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables thanks to a new program funded by the Socially Responsible Sweatshop.
To take advantage of this not-too-good-to-be-true opportunity, visit the Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Vendors set up along Franklin Avenue near Summit Street under the Haymaker Parkway bridge.
Simply visit the Market table under the bridge, present your WIC card, and you are set to receive your vouchers. Though the Market is year-round, the WIC Perks program will end Oct. 30.
Vendors cannot make change but may offer other items customers might have overlooked, Market Manager Andrew Rome said.
Rome knew that WIC Perks programs had been successful in Cuyahoga and Summit counties, but no one in Portage County had tried it. WIC is a federal assistance program that subsidizes nutrition and healthcare for women and children who live at or below 185% of the federal poverty line.
To bring a WIC voucher program to the Haymaker Farmers’ Market, somebody had to fund the program, and Rome knew just where to turn.
Mary Ann Kasper, founder of Kent’s Socially Responsible Sweatshop, had volunteered at the Market for years. She readily agreed to Rome’s request.
“We’re funding the program. Whatever it costs, we’re going to fund it,” Kasper said. “We think that it’s really important right now with the way the economy’s going because of what’s happening in the world, that people are struggling with food insecurity, and we really want to step up what we do so that we can help more people. When people purchase from us, we’re able to do that.”
A retired Kent City Schools teacher, Kasper was well aware of food insecurity in her community. She knew the Market had received a grant so people could get extra produce, but she also knew the money quickly ran out.
So Kasper and some friends started making and selling yoga mats from her basement, donating every penny to organizations that could combat food insecurity. That was how the Socially Responsible Sweatshop got started.
“We take landfill-destined textiles and turn them into beautiful things, all kinds of household things and nice things for people to buy, and 100% of that money goes to food insecurity projects,” she said.
Since the fabric is all donated, the workers are all volunteers, and the space they work in is donated, they have zero overhead.
In 2021, Socially Responsible Sweatshop gave Kent Social Services $9,000. An additional $3,500 went to Raven Packs, which provides children with food for the weekend.
Money also flowed to the Rural Relief Mobile Food Pantry and Portage Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“We paid the farmers to provide vegetables or fruit, and then a PMHA representative picked up the food and took it to the different places in the county where their housing is so they could distribute it to the people that needed it,” she said.
The total amount donated in 2021 was between $20,000 and $23,000.
In 2020, SRS donated $10,000 to Kent Social Services for a new freezer and another $5,000 for food to fill it, Kasper said.
Rome is delighted that Socially Responsible Sweatshop was willing to strengthen its bond with the Market. The organization had already funded a Produce Perks program, which doubled SNAP dollars up to $25 a week.
“Because of them, we were able to continue and grow this Produce Perks program, matching SNAP benefits at the Market,” he said. “Now that Produce Perks is getting more consistent grant funding, this WIC Perks program is a way for SRS to continue their support of local food at Haymaker for needy families, to continue with their mission.”
It’s a mission, and benefit program, that many eligible families may not know about.
“Less than 1% of SNAP client families use their benefits at farmers markets,” Rome said, “and having that $25 a week match, or an extra $100 in your grocery budget throughout the month, that’s really significant, especially when you add in the other food benefit programs we have at the Market as well, like WIC Perks.”
As inflation cuts into family food budgets, Rome knows the need for food assistance is greater than ever. His concern is not only attracting and helping Market customers, but helping the vendors as well.
“We also support paying the farmers who are growing that food fairly for their effort, which we can do through the donations of the Socially Responsible Sweatshop,” he said. “It helps build a resilient local food system that is accessible to everyone, even for families that are struggling financially.”
Even volunteer organizations need cash infusions now and again, though. Socially Responsible Sweatshop, now housed in the basement of Kent’s Christ Episcopal Church, is facing what Kasper calls a large annual insurance bill.
To cover it, SRS is raffling off a red, white and blue summer quilt and an extra-large, navy blue-and-gold meditation pillow with a textured mandala topper. If interested in participating in the raffle, click here.
Raffle participants or potential customers are welcome to visit the SRS space at Christ Episcopal Church from 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Fridays, or at its Market booth just under the bypass from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Tickets are $2 each or three for $5, with payment options in cash or via Venmo to SociallyResponsible1. To purchase tickets via email, visit SRSKentOH@gmial.com.