The St. Helena Farmers Market, a small oasis in a rural food desert

(05/17/22) GREENSBURG, La. — On a sunny, windy, spring Friday, the mood at the St. Helena Farmers Market was festive as residents and visitors perused fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins from local producers.

The market gives families healthful alternatives as well as community pride in one of Louisiana’s numerous food deserts.

Food insecurity, defined as the lack of access to a reliable source of food during a given year, is high in St. Helena, one of Louisiana’s eight Florida Parishes. The parish seat of Greensburg is home to the farmers market, which LSU AgCenter extension agent Marquetta Anderson said provides a fundamental service to the area.

“The food insecurity rate here is 32%. There are only two grocery stores nearby: one in town and another about 10 miles outside of town,” Anderson said. “The farmers market is an opportunity to supply individuals with fresh fruits and vegetables at a lower cost while keeping the money in the parish.”

Anderson is part of the AgCenter Healthy Communities initiative funded by the Centers for Disease and Control High Obesity Program grant, which focuses on addressing the nutrition and physical activity environments in Louisiana through a systemic, community-driven approach to reducing obesity. The St. Helena Farmers Market is a key part of this program in the parish thanks to our essential partners at Southern University Ag Center and support from Louisiana Healthcare Connections.

The farmers market offers a SNAP matching program that gives customers who have electronic benefits transfer (EBT) a three-to-one match. For example, for every $5 spent at the market using EBT, a customer can receive an additional $15 to purchase more fruits and vegetables.

This type of benefit is crucial, especially with the current rate of inflation worldwide. The most recent census shows that an estimated 22.7% of parish residents live at or below the poverty line. The County Health Rankings website indicates St. Helena Parish currently ranks 57 out of 64 Louisiana parishes based on health outcomes and 58 of 64 based on health factors.

Sadly, St. Helena Parish is not alone in a lack of healthful food choices in the state, and adults aren’t the only demographic at risk. According to the State of Childhood Obesity website, a 2019-2020 survey showed that 22.2% of Louisiana youth ages 10 to 17 are obese, ranking the state third in the nation, only behind Kentucky at 23.8% and Mississippi at 23.3%.

Denise Holston, registered dietitian and head of the AgCenter's Healthy Communities initiative, studies food insecurity and food environments in rural areas. Holston acknowledges that behavioral change can be very difficult, even when people want to improve their food choices.

"If the local consumer food environment is not supportive of healthful choices where all community members have access to affordable, quality and culturally acceptable foods, regardless of income, then the choice to purchase unhealthful foods isn't really a choice. It's their only option," Holston said.

Aulton Cryer, of Cryer’s Family Produce, has been a vendor at the St. Helena Farmers Market for approximately four years, and his family has been farming for more than 100 years, dating back to his grandfather. Cryer said customers are always welcoming and grateful for getting an economical alternative to fast food.

“It’s so easy to go out and get Burger King or McDonald’s, but for the same prices you might pay there, you could fix four meals with the things you find here,” Cryer said. “It just costs less to cook at home.”

Another vendor, Chris Muse, calls the St. Helena Farmers Market a “godsend” for his business. He is the co-owner and project manager of Muse 3 Farm, which raises grass-fed cattle on more than 100 acres in Greensburg.

“We can provide parish residents with fresh, ground beef, while other vendors provide fresh fruits and vegetables,” Muse said. “While we have marketed our beef to local grocery stores and restaurants, we’ve found that the farmers market has been the best avenue to get our product out to the local community.”

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LSU AgCenter extension agent Marquetta Anderson speaks with vendors at the St. Helena Farmers Market in Greensburg. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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Chris Muse, co-owner and project manager of Muse 3 Farm, one of the vendors at the St. Helena Farmers Market, cooks up some meatballs for customers to sample. Photo by V. Todd Miller/LSU AgCenter

6/3/2022 4:44:14 PM
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