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Food Stamps and Farmers Markets: Produce for all?

FreshBucks
By Jessica Vu and Emma Lieuwen,
WithinReach Bridge to Basics Outreach team, AmeriCorps
An important way the WithinReach Bridge to Basics team helps families and individuals at outreach sites is by connecting them to the Basic Food Program (Food Stamps) —Washington’s, state-managed subsidiary of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Additionally we provide other information about public benefit programs available, as a means of ensuring that our clients have access to the health and food resources they need to be healthy.
As AmeriCorps members, we also qualify for the program; and after completing the application process and receiving our EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards, we were able to explore the power of our new, dedicated grocery funds. We were pleased to discover, that our funds weren’t limited to grocery stores but could also be used at farmers markets.
With many of us not from the area, we soon found out that Seattle is home to seven bustling farmers markets. At farmers markets we saw signs that read “Double your EBT dollars!” and were naturally intrigued. To use an EBT card at a market, Basic Food recipients simply stop by the manager’s tent to have their EBT cards swiped, they then receive tokens for a chosen amount. Here’s where the doubling comes in: Up to $10 of EBT funds are matched with $10 in “Fresh Bucks,” or vouchers that can be used to buy fresh produce.

Photo: Tokens given for desired EBT amount (center) and Fresh Bucks for fruits and vegetables (right). Image from Food Access: FreshBucks page on: seattlefarmersmarkets.org

Having the $20 to spend at the market for $10 of EBT funds is not only an incentive to eat more fruits and vegetables, but also to use the market in general. The Fresh Bucks program in Seattle is not the only one of its kind in the country being used to raise awareness and encourage the purchase of fresh, local, produce; nationally, 5,000 farmers markets accept EBT, while 1,000 both accept EBT and will double the amount [1]. The doubling programs are made possible partially by new government funds in the most recent Farm Bill. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) allotted $31 million with the goal of assisting SNAP recipients in having access to fruits and vegetables [2].

After learning more about the implementation and scope of the Fresh Bucks and EBT use at farmer’s markets, we were inclined to further consider what kinds of issues lead to the need for such programs in the first place. We realized that our awareness of Fresh Bucks benefits stemmed entirely from the fact that we were already regularly shopping at farmers markets, even before receiving our EBT cards. While our AmeriCorps team represents a particular demographic that is both inclined to shop at farmers’ markets and income-eligible for SNAP, we have come to realize that many of our clients at outreach sites are less familiar with the option of using EBT funds at farmers’ markets. What kinds of barriers prevent our clients from utilizing these benefits, and why is there a need to incentivize the use of EBT cards at local markets?

The answer to this question is more complicated than it would seem. Issues of food access stem from the fact that, though they oftentimes reside in the midst of an abundance of food resources, many low-income communities in cities throughout the U.S. do not have access to fresh and nutritious food because it is more affordable to feed families with calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, processed food items.

A popular response to this critical social issue is to educate low-income communities about the importance of eating healthy—to make them understand that although the initial cost is high, eating nutritious foods is much more beneficial for individuals and families in the long-run. But what many of these advocates often miss is the fact that this perspective is a byproduct of socioeconomic privilege–a solution that works well for people that can afford to prioritize their needs, but not for most others. Although the injustice is located at the systems level, we all too often place the onus on the oppressed to simply change their habits as a means of fixing the problem.

Although, the Fresh Bucks program increases the purchasing power of lower-income individuals, it ignores the fact that food access is not a purely economic issue–there are social and cultural barriers that still prevent many Basic Food (SNAP) recipients from taking advantage of all the resources available to them.

As individuals who were drawn to a position related to food accessibility and nutrition, we come with a familiarity with farmers markets, and it was not a challenge to integrate the SNAP benefits into our existing consumer practices. We receive this advantage as we use the program ourselves, and can work to improve access to programs like Fresh Bucks for others. Our job/work as AmeriCrops members is to do more than just inform clients of their options and encourage healthy choices, but also to bring an understanding of social, cultural and economic barriers that our clients may face into practice, which, to us, may seem well within reach. The implementation of programs like Fresh Bucks is an important step in the direction toward improved nutrition for low-income individuals and families, but there is still a need to ensure that these programs are accessible to all.

 

Tags: Barriers   Basic Food   benefit programs   EBT card   families   Farm Bill   Farmers Markets   food   fresh local produce   low income   NIFA   Nutrition   Seattle   SNAP   

Blurring Lines

photo(30)-edited

It is hard to believe that it has only been 45 days since the Washington State Legislature adjourned, and August means it is time to start framing out our public policy agenda.  I have been on the coalition circuit this week meeting with partners about the big issues facing WithinReach and the health and human services sector–from health care reform, funding food stamps and a number of opportunities for more integrated approaches to immunizations, child development and breastfeeding.  For a short session–it could be pretty exciting.

Each of these meetings had a common theme not only for WithinReach but for our partners and our communities.  This is the “new normal.”  I believe that we will continue to see a blurring of lines between the roles of government, nonprofits and the private sector. I know at times this seems scary, but I see some amazing possibilities forming. For instance: The Fresh Bucks program is a collaboration between the Chase Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Washington State Farmers Market Association and City of Seattle (and the brain child of City Councilman Richard Conlin).  It is a great example of shifting the paradigm and creating triple-win opportunities.  Families receiving food stamps and using their EBT card receive extra buying power by matching dollars up to the first $10 spent on each visit to a Farmer’s Market.  I love this because our family farmers benefit, there are more healthy food choices for families and in turn, kids eat more fresh fruits and veggies.  The fact that a private foundation and a bank are helping to insure this happens–even better!

I am also looking forward to visiting with Congressmen Smith and Congressman Larsen during their August recess– both are long time supporters of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also referred to as EBT or food stamps) and believers in the Affordable Care Act. They will have the opportunity to see the WithinReach Healthy Connections model in action. Starting on October 1 our team will help to assist families navigate the new benefits exchange and provide food resource referrals. We believe strongly in the connection between health and nutrition. We are delighted to not only sign up kids for health insurance through Apple Health for Kids – as we have done for 12 years — but now also their parents. We are convinced kids will get better care when their parents have insurance too. Our WithinReach Healthy Connections team wouldn’t be possible without private and public support of the Verdant Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, United Way of King County, United Way of Snohomish County, King County Public Health, Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement  and Department of Health and Human Services.

I’m telling you, this “new normal” could be an amazing way to have great impact on the community.

Tags: Affordable Care Act   Apple health for Kids   EBT card   Fresh Bucks   SNAP   

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