Food Navigators deliver healthy food to the people

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

While many farmers markets draw people to their location to buy local fresh fruits and vegetables, Amy St. Germain takes the farmers market to the people. As a Farmers Market Food Navigator (FMFN), St. Germain works Thursdays at the Muskegon Farmers Market, but she knows not everyone can get to the market when she is there. So, on the first three Mondays of the month, you’ll find her cruising Muskegon Heights in the YMCA Veggie Van, a mobile farm stand. Neighbors can catch up with her at Scott Meats, where they can shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, pay for them using their SNAP benefits, and learn about how to use the produce they purchase, right outside the family-owned butcher shop. Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) developed the FMFN program to bring nutrition educators into farmers markets that accept food assistance benefits to help families on tight budgets plan healthy, affordable meals.

Amy St. Germain.
As a nutrition educator for YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, St. Germain's food navigator position, as well as other YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) programming, are made possible through MFF’s SNAP-Ed funding. MFF is a state implementing agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids extends their SNAP-Ed programming to Muskegon neighborhoods to complement the work of the Muskegon YMCA.

“It’s been very exciting. We learned through our SNAP-Ed work that people had barriers to accessing fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, and also were not sure what to do with the produce they do pick up,” St. Germain says. “Not everyone can get to the farmers market. So, we started looking at addressing those issues and reached out to the corner stores in the area to see if we could partner in some way.”

Amy St. Germain talks to visitors at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
The neighborhood food landscape is made up 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 transit options have decreased, which made it harder for people to get to the farmers market or grocery stores. As a result, many residents depend on corner stores and liquor stores for groceries — and those stores offer little in the way of nutritious, affordable food.

“Known for having the largest meat counter in Muskegon County, Scott Meats jumped right in because they understood the value of having the Veggie Van on site, and the role we could play to bring fresh fruits and vegetables along with our food navigator programming to the neighborhood. It was a natural fit,” St. Germain says.

By taking the time to assess community needs and reaching out to area stores, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids went a step beyond providing fresh produce. Instead, they expanded on the FMFN programming they offered at the Muskegon Farmers Market and found a way to apply it and take it on the road to Scott Meats with their Veggie Van.

“The Veggie Van goes to Scott Meats on three Mondays a month from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but we always stay later because we have such a line of people waiting,” St. Germain says. “I have recipes from MFF’s Michigan Harvest of the Month™ website available and give people a chance to sample them. People return week after week and tell me things like, ‘I looked at that website and I tried the zucchini dip.’ The recipes get them interested in trying new produce and how to use some of the fresh fruits and vegetables from the Veggie Van. It just goes to show that SNAP-Ed works and people really appreciate our programming.”

St. Germain sources many of the Veggie Van’s fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids' own small Muskegon food gardens, like the garden that was planted in front of the Y's office on Third Street.

“Last year, the city renovated Third Street and began putting in these beautiful flower gardens,” St. Germain says. “We asked if we could instead put in a vegetable garden for our transient population. For the last two years, we’ve had that garden right outside of our office. We pick produce for the Veggie Van there as well.”

At the Muskegon Farmers Market, St. Germain works as a FMFN on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. She helps shoppers learn how to choose, use, and preserve fresh fruits and vegetables, introduces them to farmers that grow their food, and explains how food assistance programs work. Those programs include SNAP, WIC, and incentive programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the monetary amount of fruits and veggies people can purchase using SNAP.

“They have really become a community of friends,” St. Germain says. “Michigan Fitness Foundation’s Farmers Market Food Navigator program is so much more than a program. It creates community. People meet me at my market booth, almost like a coffee hour. I share nutrition information with them about the fruits and veggies that are in season, share cooking tips, a recipe sample, and we chit-chat. I get 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’s a comfort level. They know they can ask questions, share concerns, have fun, and know that it’s a safe environment.”

Amy St. Germain talks to visitors at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids also offers a host of other SNAP-Ed programming in Muskegon. Preschoolers participate in Harvest for Healthy Kids once a month when the Y's SNAP-Ed educators go to preschool classrooms to introduce kids to fresh fruits and vegetables. They offer Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities™, a six-week healthy eating and physical activity promotion curriculum, to about 5,000 elementary students in both Grand Rapids and Muskegon. Linking Lessons in Schools, a 12-week classroom-based nutrition education program, serves middle and high school students at Muskegon Orchard View High School. Separate, age-appropriate Cooking Matters classes engage teens, families, adults, and older adults to teach participants how to shop for and cook healthy meals.

“We have been very intentional and strategic about what we offer. We have started from the preschool level, through school-age, middle school, and high school, and we have the adults and senior population,” says Jennifer Lambert, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids community collaborations director. “That constant reinforcement across all age groups is important. We want to inspire everyone to eat healthy and move more, so they can be the best they can be.”

SNAP-Ed is catalyzing change in the Muskegon community. St. Germain notes that Scott Meats can see the change and importance of providing fresh produce. In fact, the store will be adding its own fresh produce department so residents can have access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the week. And city council members are looking at ways to keep the Muskegon Farmers Market open year ‘round.

Amy St. Germain talks to visitors at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
“They have been asking us questions. ‘What might that look like? How can we partner and collaborate to create more food access?’ Those conversations are starting to be had. It’s becoming a community-wide effort,” Lambert says. “It has been really exciting to be a part of something where we can see tangible change. It happens right before our eyes.”
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