The Fresh Connect program is only in its second year, but it’s already seen substantial growth.

The program seeks to increase access to New York-grown fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income communities across the state that have inadequate access to any type of produce.

Last year, the program funded about a dozen projects. This year, with the help from an additional $300,000 to support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initiative, 34 projects received support.

The program received about 120 applications, said Jessica Ziehm, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“During this buy-local trend that’s going on now, no one wants to be left out of that, and who can deny them?” Ziehm said.

Individual projects were eligible for up to $10,000. They ranged from farmers markets to youth markets, distribution projects and food donation programs, Ziehm said,

“It entices a new client to that farmers market that may never have shopped at one before, but it also gets fresh fruits and vegetables into the diets of those that need it most,” she said.

The program is administered through a partnership between the state agriculture department, Empire State Developments and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, according to a news release from the department.

Ziehm says the Fresh Connect program works with the state’s Pride of New York program in that it promotes New York fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Most farmers markets utilize the Pride of New York program with signage,” she said.

The difference in the two programs is that Pride of New York is a marketing tool largely for growers to use for the promotion of New York products, and Fresh Connect is more focused on matching those growers with low-income customers.

Ziehm said there could be an increase in participants for the Pride of New York program as smaller, direct-distributing growers get involved through the Fresh Connect program.

Ziehm expects support of and participation in the Fresh Connect program to continue to grow, noting widespread benefits.

“We’ve been able to help provide some assistance to these markets and projects to allow them to reach more people,” she said.

The department plans to track the results of these projects throughout the summer and keep records on how many customers they see and what the (electronic benefit transfer) and food stamp usage is so they can monitor whether those numbers are increasing.

“We should have some great results at the end of this season,” Ziehm said.

Fresh Connect Checks

Another aspect of the Fresh Connect program is the use of Fresh Connect Checks. The state is offering a $2 coupon to customers at participating farmers markets for every $5 worth of produce purchased with food stamps.

The department hopes this will encourage more low-income households to shop for New York produce.

Ziehn says this program only saw limited success last year because it wasn’t introduced until the end of the season. This year the checks will be issued at the beginning of July.

“We’ll have about 10,000 checks to distribute to those 34 projects that we funded through the program,” she said. “We’ll be right at the height of the farmers market season when they have the highest selection, so we’re hoping we can run out of checks and know that they are really being used.”