Local farmers market doubles food stamps — how do they do it and why is it rare? 


click to enlarge Those in the know get unparalleled bang for their buck. - KATERYNA SEDNIEVA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Kateryna Sednieva/Shutterstock.com
  • Those in the know get unparalleled bang for their buck.

Milly James had just spent her monthly SNAP benefits (also known as food stamps) at King Soopers when she found out via her Facebook newsfeed that she could get double her money's worth elsewhere. James — who's going by a pseudonym in this story — paid a visit to the Colorado Farm and Art Market the following day to learn more about the Double Up Food Bucks program while her 5-year-old daughter contentedly munched on a grilled cheese sandwich.

"So you mean I can get twice as much with SNAP here?" the 22-year-old asked market manager Natalie Seals, who relished the opportunity to explain how the program works. "You come here, pick out what produce you want, then if you swipe for $20, I'll give you $40," Seals told her.

It's a win-win for James, who said she's all about both stretching her monthly public assistance and feeding herself and her daughter food that's "not full of crap."

"Oh, I'll be back," she said. And she'll have plenty of opportunity, given the market runs every Wednesday from 3 to 7 p.m. outside the Pioneers Museum and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Margarita at Pine Creek, until October.

About 15 farmers markets operate in the city, but only two accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as payment and only the Colorado Farm and Art Market doubles their value. It's one of about a dozen in the state that've been doubling for years, but more are coming onboard now that a coalition of private and public partners has launched a more concerted effort.

That effort goes by the name Double Up Food Bucks Colorado, which, with $500,000 over three years from the USDA and nearly $900,000 in matching support from community sponsors, now includes upwards of 35 farmers markets, farm stands, CSAs and co-ops in 19 counties. It's what funds Colorado Farm and Art Market's doubling efforts up to $20 per purchase with additional support from Kaiser Permanente.

Wendy Peters Moschetti with the Denver-based non-profit LiveWell Colorado is excited about the progress.

"We don't think anyone should have to choose between being hungry and being healthy," she told the Indy, noting the average household SNAP benefit comes out to $4.20 a day. "Those benefits just don't last the whole month for a lot of participants," Moschetti continued. "So this is just one way to stretch it."

But there's still a ways to go. Those 35 Double Up participants, concentrated along the Front Range, represent a fraction of the 53 local-food retailers that accept SNAP in the state, which represents another fraction of the 130-plus that could be eligible.

So, why do fewer than half of local-food retailers that could accept SNAP, actually do?

Here in the Springs, Frank Schmidt has been approached about getting his 34-year-old Old Colorado City market SNAP-authorized. (Market managers can set up a centralized system that covers all vendors.) He declined, he says, because he thinks it would hurt farmers' bottom lines. (Of the 43 vendors set up there every summer Saturday, five are actually farmers.)

"It's [vendors'] responsibility, not mine," Schmidt said about gearing up to accept food stamps.

Peters Moschetti says cost is a perceived barrier to entry, though the Farmers Market Coalition, a contractor of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, is offering free EBT equipment (needed to swipe a customer's benefit card) while supplies last.

"A lot of people just don't even know where to start," she said about the layers of bureaucracy vendors need to navigate. "But in addition to what we're all doing to guide it along, on their side of things, we need a cultural shift to make these markets more welcoming and inclusive of everyone."

What she's referring to is both obvious and often unstated: Farmers markets have long been geared toward white people with money (Whole Foods shoppers, Prius drivers, mate drinkers, yoga mat toters, etc.) It's a division that widened with increased commodification of the health/eco-conscious lifestyle — locally grown veggies came to signify one cultural identity while food stamps came to signify another.

But that is most definitely not set in stone, according to Peters Moschetti. She highlights a farmers market in Greeley that brought in many newcomers by making just a few intentional choices.

"There's an incredibly diverse population there, so the market managers made all the signage bilingual and started to highlight all these different ethnic foods," she said. "By reaching out and opening up, they brought in communities that have pretty profound relationships to food."

Such a strategy is on the mind of Sophie Javna of Pikes Peak Small Farms who's managing the Downtown Sunday Market this summer. She expects the market will get SNAP-authorized later this month (though will not be doubling this season.) "This is about totally rethinking who gets access to food at farmers markets," she says. "But it's also about where this money, in the form of public benefits, goes."

To get an idea of what she means, consider: Around 90 percent of SNAP-authorized retailers in the country are big grocery stores, super stores and gas station convenience stores. Accordingly, those retailers raked in nearly $57 billion in food stamp money spent in fiscal year 2015, according to USDA record-keeping. At the same time, giant retailers like Walmart resist paying their employees a living wage — keeping even full-time employees reliant on food stamps to survive.

And that's her point: The corporations profiting off food stamps are some of the same ones perpetuating the need for them. That's why Javna sees authorizing her farmers' market to accept SNAP as a small step toward breaking the cycle.

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