Over 40 supporters of the Garden Sass Farmers Market attended the Barry County Health Department Board of Trustees meeting last Thursday night in Cassville. Market vendors and customers were in attendance to voice concerns regarding the enforcement of county and state health codes.
Paul Bingham, a member of the Garden Sass Farmers Market, served as the group's main spokesperson. Bingham opened by stating that vendors are concerned that "prior notice was not provided regarding a decision to enforce codes that had been on the books for over a decade."
In response, Roger Brock, health department administrator, explained that the department's environmental public health specialists recently attended an in-service meeting that focused on the topic of providing area farmers' markets with information regarding state and county codes.
"We just wanted to make sure you know what is out there," said Brock. "We want people to come to the farmers markets and buy fresh produce. We don't want to discourage the farmers' market."
Through health department programs, staff members often encourage community members to shop at the farmers' market in order to purchase fresh produce, said Brock.
"I don't think enforcement is what we had on our minds," said Brock. "We just wanted to give you information on proper labeling and make other information available."
Bingham asked what other codes were currently on the books that have not previously been enforced, which could impact farmers' markets. He also asked if zoning would be an issue for the Garden Sass Farmers' Market in the future.
Even though Brock was not aware of any other codes that could impact the market, he said he would research the question. Barry County does not have any zoning regulations.
Members of the Garden Sass Farmers Market were also concerned about requirements regarding jellies, jams and baked goods. Bingham said that the information vendors received stated that products must be labeled with a list of ingredients and a statement that the item was not inspected by the health department.
"We see this as an erosion of consumer confidence and community good will," said Bingham. "Do you feel these products are less safe?"
"I am more concerned that folks know what is in the product than if it says it is not inspected," said Brock. "If a customer picks up a product, I want them to know what is in it."
Bingham invited Brock to join market vendors' efforts to change state health codes regarding farmers' markets.
County health departments are required to follow state regulations in order to qualify for funding. Without state funding, county health departments would not be able to offer services, such as environmental inspections, vaccinations and nutrition programs, to county residents.
Bingham also asked the county health board to provide the Garden Sass Farmers' Market with a certificate or endorsement, which would allow vendors to sell produce at area stores or offer booths in retail parking lots inside Cassville.
"There is no give and take, just an erosion of people's confidence," said Bingham. He referred to regulations that have even been imposed on children's lemonade stands in other locations in the country.
"I don't feel there is over regulation on the part of the local health department," said Brock. "We encourage the use of the farmers' market. We think it is good to get fresh produce to our residents."
Brock said health department inspectors would likely drop by the market once a year to check to see if items are labeled.
Brock said that requirements, such as egg licensing, are imposed by the state health department. Those licenses are available through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services for around $10.
"For a vendor who sells only two dozen eggs a week, the paperwork and fee is not worth it," said Bingham. He asked Brock if the health department would be interested in training a member of the Garden Sass Farmers' Market to serve as the market inspector.
"We can't do that," said Brock. "You can do self inspecting. We have many facilities that have in-house inspectors. We perform dual inspections of all those facilities though.
"Our objective is to work with folks and make this as painless as possible," said Brock. "We have no ill will toward the farmers' market. We can work together and not have any issues."
Bruce Stringer, a representative of the Southwest Missouri Tea Party, asked the health board if they would be willing to review a list of suggestions generated by the group of market supporters.
"We can't, as a public entity, promote one group over another, but if you want to provide us with ideas that could help promote healthy eating and diet that in turn promotes the farmers market and fresh products, we would be happy to review those ideas," said Dennis Baker, health board vice chairman.
Bingham asked the board if they would advocate for a bill if the group is able to convince a legislator to sponsor one.
"It would depend on what that bill is," said Baker. "We can't give you a blanket endorsement."
"It is my understanding that you are willing and want to work with us," said Joe Rittenhouse. "You are as much a part of the community as we are. You are requiring labeling saying there is not peanut butter or anything extra in a product. I think that is a reasonable request. You are not our enemy. You are our neighbors."
Bingham and Stringer asked if the group could appoint a liaison to work with the health department regarding vendor concerns. The board welcomed the idea.
In other business, the Barry County Health Department Board of Trustees:
* Approved a special use permit for a wastewater system at a residence in Shell Knob.
* Heard that the department will receive a $25,000 basic support grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health that can be used for equipment, storage buildings, a portable generator or replacement of non-WIC computers.
* Approved the service fees, public health programs, service count and environmental reports.