There is a resource in downtown Williamsport that promotes healthy eating, stimulates the local economy and accepts vouchers offered to low-income families through WIC, although they often go unused.
Mindful Harvest is championing a program to educate low-income children on the importance of a healthy diet by taking advantage of the local produce options at the Williamsport Farmers' Market, also while learning how to grow their own fruits and vegetables.
The Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables grown in Pennsylvania that are readily available to senior citizens and WIC recipients, but they often go unredeemed.
Abigail Eschbach and her 1-year-old son Henry, left, and Sally Rizzo with her 9-month-old son Alexander Ayers, get acquainted with some of the plants in the green house at the Pajama Factory. The Mindful Harvest Program will teach children about healthy food and gardening.
Rizzo stands in the green house at the Pajama Factory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that the redemption rate of food stamps (now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) steadily declined over the past 15 years partly due to inaccessibility, unfamiliarity with farmers markets and the common misconception of higher prices.
Sally Rizzo, of Williamsport, wants to clear up the misunderstanding and empower lower-income families to take ownership over what they eat. It's a sense of community and camaraderie that drives her latest passion project.
At 24, Rizzo dreams with an endless ambition that draws in supporters from WIC to Walnut Run Farm.
She moved to Williamsport a few years ago after graduating with honors from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
"No one would hire the girl with dreads covered in tattoos, but I was able to work at the greenhouse," Sally said.
She put her environmental studies degree to work at the Organic Garden Center in the Pajama Factory.
Neighborhood children, primarily from lower-income families, began gravitating toward the greenhouse, as the great opaque dome in the parking lot of the Pajama Factory sparked the interest of young minds.
Rizzo quickly began educating the inquiring children in a back-to-basics approach, realizing their lack of knowledge was met wholeheartedly with a desire to learn. And the seeds of Mindful Harvest were planted.
"I can relate to the struggle. You can have a rough childhood and come through it, expanding yourself and trying new things. It's all about growth and making the effort to move forward and grow," she said.
When all else fails, the ground will house soil, the seeds will sprout and the fruits of labor will produce - literally. This is something Rizzo knows for sure.
She grew up immersed in nature, making mud pies and running around the lake barefoot. When she was 11 years old, her father died and her mother left, leaving Rizzo, her sister and two brothers on their own. She ended up living with friends through high school, and despite the disjointed upbringing, she received a full scholarship to college.
"Nature is my biggest inspiration. Every time I step outside I'm reminded how lucky I am to be alive and to be a part of such a beautifully diverse biological community," she said.
Mindful Harvest seeks to bring a similar perspective, to connect and empower the local youth and their families with healthy and locally grown food. The program will launch in mid-June with workshops on gardening and nutrition for children.
"The idea of people taking an active role in their health is behind everything for Mindful Harvest, people empowering people. As today's societies become more and more urbanized, families are becoming increasingly disconnected from the earth. This means that more and more people are becoming disconnected from their food source and, I've found that when children are not given the opportunity to explore nature, they tend to not appreciate the natural world," she said.
Mindful Harvest also is partnering with WIC for events at the Williamsport Growers Market to help combat the low redemption rates of Farm to Market coupons, by educating the recipients on how to redeem the vouchers and then instructions on preparing local fruits and vegetables.
Rizzo believes that the problem stems from a simple gap in information on how to prepare whole foods in a nutritious, time-sensitive and appetizing manner.
"When families rely on big companies to feed them, they tend to get highly processed food and have more health issues," she explained. "I think it's important that people take back their intrinsic power to be self-sufficient and connected to their earth, by growing their own food and enjoying every moment of the natural process. Giving a child and their family the opportunity to be active participants in improving their food system and their overall health is essentially giving that family back their inherent rights to be a part of nature."
The workshops will include information on transplanting seeds, worm composting and healthy cooking, with each hour-long class consisting of a 30-minute lesson, followed by 30 minutes of hands-on application. Master gardeners from Penn State will offer their expertise, ensuring that the classes are not only engaging but a viable resource for children to learn self-sustainable living.
While Mindful Harvest is just beginning in Williamsport, Rizzo continues to lay the groundwork for the future.
Currently, there is only one community garden in Williamsport and it is full. So she is working to open another.
"Gardening is therapeutic, saves you money, builds stronger and more self-reliant families, creates community pride, beautifies the local community and educates families in various fields. I see our community becoming more connected to the earth and to their food source, and I see less destruction, less health issues and less struggle," she said.
Rizzo said that a green thumb is not necessary to get involved with Mindful Harvest - and anyone interested in volunteering or donating may contact her at salsa-rivers@yahoo .com or 570-419-8106.