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LOCKPORT – When you drive by vast tracts of farmland and summer farmers’ markets, it can be easy to forget that, in some urban areas, access to fresh food is not taken for granted.

Local farmers have always generously shared their bounty of fresh foods with area food pantries. Now, a new effort has been started to make that sharing easier – the Plentiful Partnership of Niagara, a collaborative effort among Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County, the Food Bank of Western New York, Niagara Community Action Program Inc. and Niagara County farmers. The group met recently to explore how to increase sales, reduce waste and help local families in need.

The program is addressing both the issue of “food insecurity” and heath problems such as obesity and diabetes, according to Margaret Lapp, a community educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County’s New York State grant-funded program, called “Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play.”

“Our aim is to keep Niagara County produce local and to reduce food insecurity and alleviate hunger and share the rich food items we have,” said Lapp.

She explained that food insecurity is a term public health officials use to describe how some people don’t have the funds or easy access to the kinds of healthy food they need.

It is a particular problem in Niagara County.

Nationally, Lapp said, the food insecurity rate is 14.7 percent, and in New York State it is 12.4 percent. But in Niagara County, 17.2 percent of the population is food insecure.

“It’s troubling when we think of how generous our farmers are. In New York State, we are third nationwide in food donations for farmers. That follows Florida and California, and with our limited planting season. That’s really something to talk about,” Lapp said.

She said the goal of the Plentiful Partnership is to close that gap by bringing the rich produce in this area to people in inner cities who don’t have access to fresh and healthy foods. She called Niagara Falls “a food desert.”

“I don’t know one farmer that doesn’t have a community-minded attitude in not wanting to waste,” Lapp said. “We do waste quite a bit in this country, especially in fresh produce. What we are doing is trying to bridge that gap.

“But food banks can’t make it out to pick up from a farmer, and farmers get really busy in the heat of the season. We are hoping to step in and step up to make that connection. Part of this is making it easier for the farmers.”

Lapp said volunteers working with members of the Creating Healthy Places program will be crucial in this new effort.

“One of the new efforts we are working on is market gleaning,” she said. “Gleaning is an old term. Farmers used to be required by law to open up their farms. To have the poor come in and glean, or pick, what was left over after the main harvest. What we are looking to do is to have some gleaning directly from the field, but also from the markets because as farmers are packing up their trucks at the end of the day, they are just going home and dumping things. That’s a huge waste.”

She said Creating Healthy Places will be using brightly colored bins to collect produce from farmers – things that would have been thrown out or things that can be donated. They will also be going out into fields with volunteers under Lapp’s supervision, including youth groups such as 4-H, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to teach them how to harvest for both their own families and for donations.

Lapp said that with the “Corner Store Initiative,” farmers can both increase sales and reduce waste by both sharing their excess and also selling to local corner or convenience stores that may be some people’s only access to groceries. Nutrition programs also are in place at Cornell Cooperative Extension to teach people how to cook with fresh foods.

“There’s some folks who come to the stand and don’t know how to cook this produce so they are not interested in buying it,” Lapp said. “We are the 59th-least- healthy out of 62 counties across the state. One in seven have an urgent need for food in Niagara Falls. With the Creating Healthy Places program we are looking to reduce Type 2 diabetes. That number is also staggering here in Niagara County. Twenty-nine percent of adults in Niagara County are obese, and nationally that number is 25 percent. Obesity is closely linked to Type 2 diabetes.”

“The access to healthy foods rate in New York State is only 4 percent that suffer (from limited access to healthy foods,) while in Niagara County that number is 13 percent that have limited access to healthy foods.”

Lapp said farmers are stretched thin during the harvest season so they really want others to step up. They are looking for volunteers who want to get involved in gleaning a field or want to be a participating farm. She said farmers also can increase their sales by participating in the Corner Store initiative.

“We want to pay tribute to our farmers. In 2013, Niagara County farmers contributed 38,516 pounds of produce. That’s pretty substantial. But food insecurity remains, and we want to see how we can go about changing that,” Lapp said.

Farmers, businesses, area food pantries and those who want to want to get involved as volunteers should contact Lapp at mml37@cornell.edu or 433-8839, Ext. 232.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com