Shoppers at the Bernice Garden in Little Rock can purchase tokens with both EBT and regular debit cards (left). The Fayetteville Farmers Market was the first market in the state to offer a “double your dollars” program for SNAP benefit recipients.

 

ACCESSIBLE PRODUCE IS A SNAP

Farmers markets around the state adopt food assistance programs

By: Zoë Rom   Photography: Saira Khan and Zoë Rom

As the Fayetteville Farmers Market gets underway, the warm summer air fills with the rich aroma of fresh bread, coffee and fresh fruits and vegetables. Vendors gather under bright umbrellas and arrange their wares, and the sound of the growing crowd is underscored by musicians tuning their instruments at each corner of the historic Fayetteville Square. Hungry shoppers push strollers and walk dogs past booths offering a diverse array of products from soap and cinnamon rolls to duck eggs and kohlrabi. Since 1973, the Fayetteville market has attracted a dedicated, vibrant community—one that market managers hope to grow by offering a “Double Your Dollar” program for recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

According to local nonprofit Feed Fayetteville, Washington County ranks third among food insecure areas in Arkansas, with half of eligible people receiving SNAP benefits. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive compared to processed foods, so to make items at the farmers market more competitive and increase access to fresh, local produce, the Fayetteville Farmers Market has teamed up with several organizations, including the University of Arkansas and the Walmart Foundation. In addition to making fresh food more affordable, the program also offers an economic benefit to farmers.

“This program is great because it helps out low income members of the community and it helps farmers,” says Heather Friedrich, the program’s manager and member of the University of Arkansas Horticulture Department. “It works both ways. Farmers benefit with increased sales, and local businesses and other food retailers benefit with more money in the local economy.”

The first step in promoting healthy food-buying habits was getting Electronic Bank Transfer (EBT) machines into farmers’ hands so they could receive payment from those using SNAP benefits. SNAP coupons are automatically loaded onto EBT cards, which makes access easier for SNAP beneficiaries. Discreet and efficient payment systems have helped the program grow, helped lower-income citizens feel included in the community and removed the stigma associated with receiving this kind of nutritional assistance.
“It really brings people together, both people with SNAP and the local farmers,” Heather says. “So, to really encourage SNAP usage at the farmers markets we got a complimentary grant from the Walmart Foundation to both encourage healthy eating habits, but also to increase awareness of using SNAP benefits at farmers markets.” It was this grant that allowed the “double your dollars” program to be implemented.

“We’re seeing folks engage at the farmers market that typically wouldn’t shop with us.” 

—Bo Bennett

The Fayetteville Farmers Market is more than just a hub for fresh produce: It is a place for socializing and forging relationships. The addition of EBT machines ensures inclusivity and community across the social spectrum. It makes the best local produce accessible to all members of the community, and conveys a sense of belonging. Even better, SNAP benefits can be used for more than just produce—they can also be used to purchase edible plants so that people can plant their own gardens and move towards being more self-sufficient. 

This is the fourth year of the Double Your Dollar Program, with an estimated $70,000 to $80,000 match dollars available, resulting in around $150,000 dollars’ worth of local food purchases. It is estimated that each dollar spent in a local market will circulate up to four times through the local economy, meaning that a $1 purchase can result in $4 of local economic impact. This year alone, the SNAP Double Your Dollar program has the potential to generate $300,000 to $600,000 in economic activity in Fayetteville alone. When farmers see increased sales, they in turn have more money to spend in local retail, and the buck gets passed on. 

Other markets around the state have taken up Fayetteville’s example. The Bentonville, Springdale and Rogers Farmers Markets have similar programs in place, complete with EBT machines and dollar-matching programs. Arkansas, though a primarily agricultural state, consistently ranks among the worst in food insecurity, a problem that citizens and farmers alike are coming together to solve through innovative programs such as Double Your Dollar and promoting SNAP usage at local markets.

In Little Rock, the Bernice Garden Farmers Market in the South Main neighborhood became the first central Arkansas market to introduce a dollar-matching program. The market has been accepting SNAP benefits since 2013 through funding by the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. With a grant through a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant from the USDA, Bernice Garden Market became the first doubling market in Little Rock in 2015. “I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between the prices that the farmers needed to get on their fruits and vegetables and the prices that folks with less food dollars could access,” said Bo Bennett, former market manager. “We’re seeing folks engage with our growers at the farmers market that typically wouldn’t shop with us.”

Bernice Garden hopes to become a model for what urban farmers markets can do in their communities by offering affordable and fresh produce to more shoppers. Programs like the ones in place in northwest Arkansas and Bernice Garden Market are growing and gaining popularity, and the USDA as well as the state Department of Human Services have many seasonal and long-term grants and guidance available for markets looking to expand their reach and impact in their communities.

Finding funding to provide the matching dollars is the primary challenge that new markets will face, though many markets are able to cobble together and crowdsource funds through merchandise sales, fundraisers and donations. It’s something that Bo Bennett thinks is worth the struggle. “Double SNAP programs are essential to ensuring all people access no matter of income to nutrient-dense, locally grown foods at farmers markets.” Making local produce more accessible and competitive is a win-win situation for farmers and consumers alike, and there’s no better place for it than at Arkansas farmers markets.

For more information about how your local market can get involved with similar programs, visit marketsnap.uark.edu for the University of Arkansas’ guide to resources and grants.