BINGHAM — Mary Wade, a resident of Pleasant Ridge Plantation, perused the ripe red tomatoes, fresh ears of corn and locally grown peppers on Main Street Thursday afternoon.

“I have a garden, but I thought they might have apples, so I stopped when I saw the veggies,” said Wade, 79. There were no apples, but Wade left the small farm stand, set up on the lawn of the Bingham Area Health Center, with several ears of corn, a crop that she can’t grow in her own garden because the growing season is too short where she lives in northern Somerset County.

Wade was one of about 50 people who shopped at the Food For All Farm Stand, a pilot project started by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets and Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, on Thursday. The stand will be open every Thursday through Oct. 23. Its goal is to develop a new model for getting locally grown produce to people in rural communities, especially those with low incomes.

“Across the board, most often farmers markets are more expensive than what we usually compare to, Walmart, and that’s where most of the people using (state food benefits) are going for their produce,” said Kristin Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank. “How does a farmer’s market compare to Walmart? It’s a lot more expensive. What we’re trying to do is get the farmers market, but put it more at the Walmart price.”

Unlike a farmers market, which is defined in Maine state law as the direct sale of food and farm products by two or more farmers, a farm stand provides an alternative structure for farmers to distribute produce in rural areas, where it can be hard to organize farmers markets.

The project works with farmers — for now just in Somerset County — to buy produce at a reduced rate and offers items from several different farms under one stand, saving the farmer the trip to a potentially remote location. The food is not free, but the groups say the prices are lower than they might be at other farmers markets, and food stamps are accepted as a method of payment.

Organizers decided to launch the project in Bingham, a town of about 1,000 people on the Kennebec River, for several reasons, including that there is no farmers market and the community has a demonstrated need for healthy food options, especially among low income people, said Miale.

In addition, the local food pantry, the Bingham Area Food Pantry, closed in August after 33 years in operation when the church rectory housing the pantry went up for sale.

The groups are also working with the health center, which in the past has worked with Good Shepherd to bring a mobile food pantry to Bingham and provided a central in-town location for the stand. And the fact it takes state benefits — food stamps, though now paid with an eletronic benefits transfer card — is important.

“Most of the farmers we work with are of course very interested in fair food access,” said Leigh Hallett, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets. “It’s not easy to offer EBT, but it is due to that commitment to food access that so many have begun to do so. I think everyone likes to see as many people as possible able to access local food. Maine is a food producing state, so naturally we want everyone to access what is available here.”

There are about 40 farmers markets across Maine that accept food stamps, but part of the challenge rural communities face is attracting farmers markets. In Somerset County, which boasted more than 140,000 acres of farmland in 2012, there are only four farmers markets.

“Farmers are only going to set up a market if it makes economic sense for them,” said Miale. “There are certain areas of the state where we know there’s a need for a farmers market, but no farmer is willing to raise their hand and say, ‘Oh, we’ll go put one there.’ They know that for one farmer it’s not going to work.”

On Thursday, the farm stand was selling produce from two farms, One Drop Farm in Skowhegan and Sweet Land Farm in Starks. Efforts will be made to add more.

Tomatoes were 98 cents per pound, corn was 25 cents per ear and green peppers were 65 cents per pound.

The stand, which was open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., sold out of squash around 2 p.m.

If the project is successful, there are plans to bring it to other parts of the state, but specific communities haven’t been determined yet.

“It’s not just for people that would be going to the food pantry. It’s really for every demographic,” said Meghan Quinn, an intern at the Good Shepherd Food Bank who is managing the stand. “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be able to access food that is grown in their own community.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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