With the District’s 2013 budget set to be released March 23, farmers market advocates made a last-minute appeal to Mayor Gray for $150,000 to help fund incentive programs for low-income shoppers.
Incentive programs double the purchasing power for families and individuals in need of fresh produce by matching their federal nutrition assistance, such as SNAP, WIC and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Shoppers can spend $5 dollars of their federal benefits and receive $10 in wooden chips to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat.
“It benefits me because I get more food. Twice as much is better,” said Jeffrey McNeil, Street Sense Vendor and farmers market shopper. “Plus, food at farmers markets is healthier because it’s from local farmers, so it’s more nutritional. I like to buy meat —chicken and fish—and vegetables.”
The District ranked eighth in the nation for lack of access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in a 2011 report compiled by the Food Research and Action Center. The D.C. Farmers Market Collaborative —a group of market managers, advocates and city staff requesting the funding —sees farmers markets as a way to meet the fresh produce needs of D.C. residents, such as Jeffrey McNeil.
Of the 35 markets in D.C., at least 10 will offer incentives in 2012.
Current farmers market incentives have been funded in various ways. Organizations that run each market have either raised the money or received grants. Many grants are funded through Wholesome Wave, an organization working to improve access to locally grown produce.
Despite the support, current efforts do not guarantee successful seasons.
“We would be crazy wild for city funding,” said Elizabeth Dunn, market master at FRESHFARM Markets. “If they could make it easier for us and not as expensive to be out in public space, it would benefit the low-income shoppers, as well.”
The Collaborative’s request for city funding is not a first for farmers markets nationwide. The leader of city-funded farmers market incentives is Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who launched “Bounty Bucks” in 2008.
In a report released during the pilot season of “Bounty Bucks,” Boston’s The Food Project found that 87 percent of surveyed SNAP customers consumed more fresh produce because of the program.
With D.C. residents struggling to find affordable produce, the Collaborative wants to imitate Boston’s success. In order to do that, the funding must come from the mayor, said Lauren Shweder Biel—executive director of DC Greens, an organization working to increase food access.
“We’re only able to match as much as we can raise. It’s kind of a race every year to get enough money.” Biel said. “If the city became a partner in this effort we could ensure that we can provide this incentive into the future. As the programs grow, the funding needs to grow.”
The Columbia Heights farmers market has seen significant growth since implementing the incentives. The market redeemed $28,000 worth of federal nutrition assistance benefits last year, according to Robert Schubert—executive director of Columbia Heights Marketplace. A majority of the 2,200 transactions were WIC, which supports women, infants and children.
Schubert estimated that food access was increased for more than 6,000 people at Columbia Heights last season.
“What brought people to the market was the fact that we offered an incentive program,” Schubert said. “It helps them get healthy food that is locally grown by farmers. They can also take advantage of healthy breads or cheeses, which in turn helps the local economy.”
Calling it a ricochet effect, Biel explained that incentive programs not only increase the nutritional intake of residents; they entice people to spend their federal benefits in support of the local farm economy.
For every dollar of federal benefits spent, nearly twice that amount is generated into the local economy, according to Jen Adach, communication coordinator with the Food Research and Action Center. She said these are obvious benefits and “a huge win-win” for both residents and the economy.
City funding for incentives at farmers markets is a relatively new and cutting edge approach to dealing with the lack of affordable groceries for low-income shoppers, said Biel.
“Having the city make it a priority and to speak with their budget is important,” she said. “It’s one thing to say you support it. If this is really something the city supports, we’d like some help with it.”