By Carly Summers
After driving by Lake Champlain along forest-lined roads, then through the village of Willsboro in Essex County, NY, you stop at one of the only gas stations and markets for miles around. When you step in, you find a grocery store with assortments of cheeses, a large variety of meats, a deli, and fresh veggies— even ginger. The fact this oasis thrives in this small town isn’t the only thing that makes it special. The Village Meat Market, built in 1950, owned and operated by the same family for the last 41 years, employs 18 people in a small village. The owners donate to various fundraisers each year and have offered delivery and curbside pick-up during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of all this, the Market is also working to increase food access for the community in two important ways. One: they source various local products from area farms and value-added producers. Two: they have gone the extra mile to take SNAP (otherwise known as EBT or food stamps) and, more recently, e-WIC. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and e-WIC (part of the Women, Infants, and Children’s Public Health program) fund food purchases for low-income families.
Taking SNAP and e-WIC as a small, independent grocery store is no small feat. These systems are set up for larger stores. Taking SNAP and e-WIC aren’t efforts made for the bottom line of the business if you’re a tiny grocery in the middle of nowhere. There’s a $250 monthly charge just to be able to take SNAP, and $75 per month, plus a percentage of sales with e-WIC. Sometimes the sales just cancel out these high fees if you’re a small store. So what inspired Briana Pierce, market manager, to dedicate so much time and energy to becoming an e-WIC vendor? “When I learned that about half of WIC dollars weren’t being spent in Essex County, just because there are so few vendors that take those dollars in the villages people live, it seemed important,” said Briana. She had learned about the need when Elizabeth Terry, of Essex County Public Health, reached out to the Village Meat Market and explained the need for e-WIC vendors. So Briana embarked on a year-long trek through piles of paperwork, hours of phone calls, and unending product searches to comply with the rules of the program. “e-WIC is a fantastic program, but it’s clear more store owners would participate if it wasn’t so hard,” said Yvonne Pierce, store owner, with her hands on her forehead recalling the frustration. “The rules are extremely strict.” The store has to carry a large assortment of very specific items, as well as certain quantities of items. The main challenge has been sourcing the exact items the programs require. “There’s only one brand of oatmeal WIC families can buy, and we just haven’t been able to source it. They can’t buy Quaker Oats with e-WIC.”
“When I learned that about half of WIC dollars weren’t being spent in Essex County, just because there are so few vendors that take those dollars in the villages people live, it seemed important,”
Despite the difficulties, Briana and Yvonne are clearly not regretting the effort. “Customers are thanking us.” Briana works on an individual basis with some WIC families to source the specific items they need. “We think people are sharing that we can now take e-WIC with their friends and neighbors, and the word may be spreading to the nearby towns that don’t have e-WIC vendors as well,” said Yvonne. The market was approved to take e-WIC in October 2020, with sales slowly growing over the past several months. “We’d love people to know we can accept e-WIC— we’re not sure most people are aware yet,” said Briana.
Before taking e-WIC, the market has taken SNAP longer than Yvonne and Briana can remember, which is very rare for a small store that sells local food. The Adirondack Harvest team has only been able to track down 22 local food vendors that accept SNAP in the Adirondack Park. Now that P-EBT (or Pandemic-EBT) is being distributed to families in schools that serve free and reduced lunch, including the nearby Willsboro Central School, being a SNAP vendor in this small village is even more important.
After extensive research, the Village Meat Market is the ONLY local food vendor we can find in the Adirondack Park that accepts e-WIC. Part of the reason is clearly the strict rules, that often do not even allow WIC families to purchase local products with their e-WIC dollars. “One person wanted to buy North Country Creamery’s yogurt— the plain yogurt— but the program doesn’t allow them to purchase that. Only certain brands,” said Briana. But still, e-WIC allows for fresh veggies, even local ones, so WIC families can still access some local food with those dollars.
The fact that the Market offers local foods from area farms increases local food access for all community members. “We’ve been shocked,” said Yvonne, “the mindset is changing” as she described the growing demand for local food. “We thought the sales for our local items would slow down in the winter, but they didn’t,” she added. Briana shared, “the perception often has been that the local items are more expensive, but that seems to be changing.” Yvonne said, “We blow through totes full of Tangleroot Farm greens. And North Country Creamery delivers a good-sized order every week. We sell local eggs from various families in the area, and those fly off of the shelves.” The Village Meat Market offering these local items not only provides a source of local, fresh foods for community members, but a substantial economic boost for nearby farms, keeping those dollars local and fueling the sustainable economy of the area.
Learn more about the Village Meat Market and other local food vendors at AdirondackHarvest.com.