USDA, partners work to expand SNAP access at farmers markets

Farm Forum

As spring marches closer, farmers markets across the country are ramping up or reopening for the season. In addition to year-round staples like local milk, meat, and grains, the stars of the season—asparagus, onions, new potatoes, lamb, and greens of all varieties—are beginning to make their debuts. In a few months’ time, the markets will be in full swing, bursting with berries and zucchini and other summer fruits and vegetables. Here at USDA, we’re working hard to ensure participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have access to this healthful, local bounty.

Remarkable progress has been made in providing better access to the nation’s 8,200 farmers markets and farm stands; more than 4,200 markets and direct marketing farmers now redeem SNAP benefits. Beyond providing heightened access to farmers markets, we know that coupling access with incentives to purchase healthy products while at the market helps SNAP recipients consume a healthy diet. A new report from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service makes clear that private sector organizations share the goal of increasing access and incentives, and are willing to dedicate financial resources to ensuring the success of this approach. Researchers for the Farmers Market Incentive Provider Study interviewed representatives from more than 100 organizations that provide financial incentives to SNAP participants redeeming their benefits at farmers markets. Wholesome Wave is a great example of a not-for-profit organization that partners with 305 farmers markets in 24 states with nutrition incentive programs for doubling SNAP, WIC, and Senior Farmers Market vouchers at farmers markets.

The USDA report researched how these organizations design and run their incentive programs, how they choose markets to participate, and how they evaluate the success of their efforts. The study also identified challenges that they face; it’s no surprise that securing sustained funding topped the list.

Farmer’s market incentive programs are discovering new partnerships and affinities with health care organizations, local public health efforts, philanthropies, donors, and others in support of their work. But the need for institutional local support far exceeds current private reserves. In that regard, I am happy to report that the new Agriculture Act of 2014 enacted and signed by President Obama provides additional support for incentive programs. Although the details are still being finalized, the legislation includes $100 million in grant money to provide federal matching funds for incentive projects that increase the amount of fruits and vegetables bought by SNAP households. State, local, and tribal agencies; nonprofits; SNAP-authorized retailers; and economic development agencies, among others, are eligible to apply for the grants.

I’m encouraged by the efforts of the many incentive providers and partners highlighted in the study, and pleased that soon USDA will be able to contribute much needed financial resources to augment the impact of these important programs. It’s clear that in working together we can help SNAP participants fill their farmer’s market baskets with items sure to support a healthy diet and a healthy farm economy in communities across the country.

And that is the kind of ‘yield’ that both farmers and consumers alike can applaud.