Low-income seniors get free fruits, veggies

Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2003

SWANSEA, S.C. (AP) Seventy-two-year-old Melba Gleaton arrived at the old gymnasium early, anticipating a crowd eager to get coupons for free fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers' markets across South Carolina.

Gleaton sat in the gym waiting, more than an hour before workers started handing out $25 worth of coupons to low-income seniors.

''I love vegetables,'' she said after receiving five vouchers for $5 each. ''I suppose I eat a lot of vegetables.''

The federal program, in its third year in South Carolina, attracted more than 20,000 South Carolinians last year and officials expect a similar turnout this year.

The residents, like Gleaton, have to be 60 or older and have a personal income of less than $1,384 a month.

''It helps me out because I'm on low income,'' said Gleaton, a widow and grandmother.

The program is simple and runs into few kinks, organizers say. Seniors complete an application and pick up their coupons at various locations during the late spring or early summer, just as farmers markets are beginning to open.

When they get the vouchers, they also get a list of certified farmers markets and roadside stands located in or near the county.

James Truesdale, of Pelion, drove about 30 miles with his wife, Ruth, to pick up his coupons. ''We visit several of the places and choose the one with the best deals,'' Ruth Truesdale said.

The retired preacher and his wife often buy more produce than the coupons allow because farmers don't give change if a person buys less than the voucher is worth.

''Last time, we bought enough to put in the freezer,'' Ruth Truesdale said. Her favorite vegetables are turnip greens, squash, corn and sweet potatoes.

Program coordinator Larry Young of the Department of Social Services said the state had an 85 percent redemption rate the past two years. Last year, 22,837 people received the coupons.

The federal grant this year was for $570,925.

''Folks are just happy, they appreciate it so much,'' Young said of his recent trips where he helped distribute the coupons.

The $15 million federal program is available to all states. This year, 35 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and three tribal organizations are participating.

The state Social Services agency is South Carolina's lead agency in the program and offers food stamp applications at some of the coupon distributing centers.

''We don't have enough benefits to serve everybody who would be interested in getting a coupon,'' Young said. ''In almost every county we serve, we run out. I mean, we very rarely bring some back.''

There are generally few problems, he said, but sometimes even the simple rules can get a little complex.

''You're dealing with seniors, and sometimes they get a little confused about some of the program rules,'' Young said. ''But I've actually had seniors who've come in and applied, and after getting home and checking their income, they realize they're not eligible and they actually bring them back.''

At least 197 farmers and 18 counties were expected to participate in South Carolina's program. The coupons were distributed in May and June and are good through August.

''We are requesting them to use it earlier so that they get the best picking,'' said Mary France, who helped distribute some coupons in Beaufort. ''Sometimes, later in August the farmers may not have very much to offer.''

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