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Food for Free: Seniors line up to get $20 coupon booklet for fresh produce

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By Ramona Turner

LIVE OAK -- It had been years since Janet Glazer of Capitola had visited a farmers market. But then she heard about the free veggies.

The 81-year-old Capitola resident ventured out to the Live Oak market at the East Cliff Shopping Center on Sunday after learning that a representative from the local Area Agency on Aging was going to be there giving out free voucher booklets filled with coupons that would pay for fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit, as well as raw honey at the market.

"That usually costs an arm and a leg at the grocery store," said Glazer, who also sits on the board for the Seniors Council, which staffs the Agency on Aging office that serves Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

Caren Dix and Diane Wilson on Sunday gave out 114 voucher booklets funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers Market Senior Nutrition Program.

"It was a great turnout," said Dix, the program coordinator who also will distribute vouchers at upcoming farmers markets in Watsonville and Scotts Valley.

This was the first time the pair had given the booklets out at a market, Dix said. Previously, she used senior dining sites as her method of reaching the area's elderly, she said. But she found that the booklets weren't being redeemed as much. That's not good, considering the agency receives the same about of books as it redeems, she said.

Each booklet contains 10 coupons worth $2 each. To get the coupons, recipients must be a low-income

senior, age 60 and older. The coupons expire in November and cannot be used for items such as flowers, nuts, or dried fruits and vegetables. Each recipient was limited to one booklet, Dix said.

Dix and Wilson arrived at the market at 8:30 a.m. Sunday and spoke with a steady stream of seniors until about 1 p.m.

"People are excited we are here," Dix said. "They say Bless you.'"

People who inquired about the vouchers also learned about other services for low-income seniors, such as Meals on Wheels, which delivers fresh meals to seniors in their homes.

"A lot of people were interested because they had a friend who is a shut-in or needs a lot of help," Dix said. "There also were people who just read our sign and were interested in what we do or just stopped by to say good job.' So people in this community really do care about seniors."

Karen Phelps, an accountant for a homebound widow and stroke survivor, stopped by the booth to seek help her elderly friend of 20 years.

"This is perfect for her," Phelps said. "She has no kids, she's on Social Security. This is a great program. She needs it."

Farmers need it, too. The federal program began in 2001 as a way to improve nutrition among seniors and give local growers a boost. This is California's second year participating.

And it would appear Dix's new distribution method is working. Growers who tour the regional farmers market scene said they had more vouchers in their tills Sunday than they had ever seen before. More vouchers means more money for growers.

The federal voucher program provides $22.4 million to states and Native American tribal organizations nationwide. Of that,$838,000 this year came to California, which printed 39,250 of the booklets, said Danielle Wolfe, coordinator of the state Department of Food and Agriculture Federal Funds Management Office.

Those booklets were then divided up among the state's 33 Area Agency on Aging service areas, she added.

Locally, Dix received about 500 vouchers this year. According to 2000 Census population data cited on the Seniors Council Web site, 3,670 of the county's 33,307 seniors had an income below 125 percent of the poverty level.

Dix hoped a successful distribution and redemption rate this year, combined with new senior population data from the Census Bureau, will mean more vouchers for area seniors next year, she said.

At A glance

Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program voucher giveaways
More free $20 coupon booklets for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program will be available in coming weeks. To get one, complete an application with Caren Dix, who will be staffing the program's booth at the following farmers markets:

Watsonville: 2:30-6:30 p.m. July 24, Peck and Main streets
Scotts Valley: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 1, Scotts Valley Community Center, 360 Kings Village Drive

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