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As farmers markets start up, so do the calls to the food department here from senior citizens who want to get their farmers market vouchers.

The state-administered Farmers Market Nutrition Program gives age- and income-eligible seniors $20 in the form of four $5 vouchers that can be redeemed for local produce at area farmers markets.

This year, the vouchers will be distributed June 28 at area senior centers and you'll have to be eligible and present to get them. Not everyone who wants them gets them.

How hot is distribution day? "You would be shocked: People waiting in line for hours," says Molly DePree, who for the second season is coordinating the popular program for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services/Area Agency on Aging. She says there are 24,500 sets of vouchers, which helps people on fixed incomes eat better while also helping local farmers.

This time of year, she, too, gets lots and lots of calls, so perhaps we can save her a couple by reporting the particulars.

To be eligible, seniors must:

• Be 60 years old or older.

• Live in Allegheny County.

• Have photo ID to prove age and residence.

• Meet the income requirements: At or below $20,147 for a single household; at or below $27,214 for a two-person household (married couples can get two vouchers, one for each eligible person).

The vouchers can be spent with any farmer who accepts them, but the produce must have been grown or growable in Pennsylvania (no pineapple). Vendors who take them will display signs, and there is at least one at most local farmers markets.

Ms. DePree says she's hoping to work with more farmers this year and suggest to them a new idea: That they create $5 baskets, giving senior customers, say, two tomatoes, two peppers and an onion, which would be better for the senior than buying $5 worth of one vegetable.

After all, one goal of the program is to help seniors eat more and a greater variety of produce. The program provides nutritional tips, too, reminding seniors that men over age 60 should consume at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day; women over age 60, at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 1 1/2 cups of fruit.

Ms. DePree, who just graduated with a bachelor of science degree in nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh, notes that the program encourages seniors to use their vouchers later in the summer -- "in peak season, when you can get the best price and the best quality."

If a center has more seniors than vouchers, those people are placed on a waiting list to receive any vouchers remaining at other locations.

For more information, including details on getting a proxy form if you can't be present so that a friend can pick up your vouchers for you, go to alleghenycounty.us/dhs/olderadults.aspx or call the Senior Line at 412-350-5460.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service administers the $20.6 million-per-year program. Other localities distribute vouchers in different ways.

Ms. DePree stresses "how appreciative we are" for the hard-working staff and volunteers in the county's senior center network. "With their help we have made this program a benefit to the community for our older adults and for our farmers."


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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