Increasing Access to Farmers Markets for Low-Income Families
A woman once asked farmer Michael Tabor what she could buy at his market that would be healthy and fulfilling for her lunch break. She could just as easily walk across the street and spend $3 at McDonald’s to stay full through dinner. Tabor has spent 44 years surrounding himself with freshly grown fruits and vegetables from his farm to sell at local farmers markets across the Washington metro area, but he understood her plight. Handing the woman an apple was not going to satisfy her need for a filling meal.
“Societally, we are not in tune with the programming of what low-income people are asked to eat,” Tabor said. “What they’re asked to eat is sugar and junk food. Not broccoli. Not Brussels sprouts. Not even apples.”
The two most widely recognized and used welfare benefits are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Both government programs offer assistance to families below a specific income level to help them afford groceries. In August 2016 the United States Department of Agriculture reported 74,552 households receiving SNAP benefits and 13,973 total WIC participants.
These benefits can be used at partner grocery stores to purchase approved items, but often times those below the poverty line aren’t able to access fresh, nutritious options and lack the education to know how to prepare a healthy meal. In recent years, more and more farmers markets have been partnering with these programs to bring healthier options to the table for low-income communities.
Such markets are increasingly expanding to make themselves more accessible to those of lower socioeconomic status. In 2015, the USDA and DC Greens partnered to name all 50 of the markets that accept a variety of welfare benefits, up from 25 markets in 2006. Tabor and his wife, Esther Siegel, are pioneers in making local food accessible to those below the poverty line.
“His whole concept is to make healthy food affordable to all income families,” Siegel said. “We purposefully keep all of our prices lower and affordable.”
Many markets hold a booth specifically for transferring welfare benefit dollars into market money. Someone with these benefits is then able to exchange their dollars into a token of equal value and use the tokens at stands throughout the market. At the end of the day, the market is then reimbursed for their tokens.
One of the most prominent programs farmers markets participate in is the produce-plus coupons run through the D.C. Department of Health. The program matches the dollars of those who use SNAP, WIC, Grocery Plus, Medicaid, Social Security Disability and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This allows for customers to only use $5 of their benefits and walk away with $10 of fresh, local food.
Tabor and Siegel are part of a nonprofit market, which means they weren’t eligible for the produce plus program.
“We did it anyway,” Siegel said. “We did it up to $10. For every customer that used the WIC program, we would lose $10.”
Tabor and Siegel have expanded their local markets to lower income communities, and have recently been selling at the Ward 8 market in Anacostia. The market alone has offered $12,000 in produce-plus checks, according to its website.
“What is going to make a difference is when you go to a community like that Anacostia community,” Tabor said. “There was almost no cash exchange. It was all coupons.”
The nonprofit market, FRESHFARM is able to accept both SNAP and WIC benefits with the matching program through fundraisers. The market has matched over $300,000 since it began the matching dollars program in 2009, and in 2015 made over 6,000 transactions with customers using benefits, Lindsay Wallace, the deputy director of programs, said.
“That incentivizes people to come and purchase items, and it’s been very successful,” Wallace said.
Wallace noted that not every welfare benefit program is the same, and that the matching dollars program was specifically important to fill that void. SNAP tokens are only eligible on grocery items while WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program can only be used for fruits and vegetables. When customers use the matching dollars, it’s like getting extra money without those restrictions, and they can round out their shopping trip with a hot prepared food item or a plant.
“We want our farmers markets to be places that are welcoming to everyone in the community,” Wallace said.
The tricky part sometimes isn’t even getting low-income customers to the market, but educating them on how to properly use the ingredients.
“Low income, or limited income people, largely don’t eat in season and don’t know what to do with healthy foods. They’re already addicted to junk food,” Tabor said.
To combat this, Siegel and Tabor try to engage with lower income families and introduce healthy foods to them. They regularly offer tastings for greens and other vegetables to get people familiar with the produce. In the past they have also offered cooking classes and visited public schools to prepare food with local chefs for children, but there’s only so much you can do at a market, Tabor said.
At FRESHFARM, the market regularly hosts chefs, educators and nutritionists to perform cooking demonstrations. They also have market cards available with food access information, advertise with area nonprofits, and do outreach with senior centers and women’s shelters. But there is always room for more outreach, Wallace said.
Debra Moser, owner and founder of the Central Farm Markets, doesn’t see as much need for venders to accept WIC and SNAP benefits, largely due to the location of the markets in higher-income areas. Despite this, there are currently two vendors that accept the vouchers. Instead, the Central Farm Markets bring their produce to those who need it through donation programs.
The markets partner with Manna Food Center and fill a truck weekly at the Bethesda and Pike markets with leftover fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other products. This year alone they were able to donate 66,000 pounds of food to the food center, Moser said.
They also partner with the University of Maryland Shady Grove’s Campus Kitchens programs, which help to support students in the hospitality program who are able to cook and deliver fresh food to local, low-income families.
“I suggest [communities] work with the food centers and local organizations to connect the farmers markets to them,” Moser said. “Not all people can come to a farmers market.”
At FRESHFARM, Wallace is hopeful for a future where fundraising is easier, so that more people can access the extra money needed. She also hopes to one day get rid of the token program, which she said was outdated, in exchange for a digital program.
“We promote the value of local food to everyone,” Wallace said. “It’s healthier. It’s fresher. You know the farmer and where your food is coming from. The benefits are endless.”
Arielle Weg is a senior at American University studying print journalism and health promotion. She is a managing editor for the university paper, The Eagle, and a freelance journalist focusing on health and food.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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