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By Jesse Appelman

My neighborhood farmers market opened a few weeks ago, bringing the first local greens and asparagus of the season. In sunnier corners of the country, stone fruit and summer squash are already in (not that I’m jealous or anything). But as we celebrate the start of the market season, local produce remains an unaffordable luxury for too many.

The issue is a complex one, of course. It’s also a huge one: 1 in 7 Americans utilizes SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). One way to begin to address the barriers that exist for people to have access to farm fresh food is to make SNAP benefits usable at existing farmers markets. The USDA offers resources to help farmers markets install electronic benefits transfer (EBT) terminals, which let shoppers use food stamps instead of cash.

Some communities and organizations across the country are getting even more creative, establishing programs that make SNAP benefits worth more when they are used at farmers markets.

Here are a few of these initiatives:

  • Double Up Food Bucks matches up to $20 in farmers market purchases for food stamp users at participating Michigan farmers markets (in other words, shoppers spend $20 to get $40 worth of food). In just two years since launching in Detroit, foundation funding has fueled the program’s expansion to 46 market sites throughout the state.
  • Boston Bounty Bucks funds EBT terminals for farmers markets, trains staff in their use, and provides up to $10 in matching funds for food stamp shoppers at 21 Boston-area markets. This four-year-old program is a collaboration between The Food Project and the City of Boston, combining public and private funding to make local farm products more accessible to the city’s 82,000 food stamp participants.
  • The New York City Department of Health sponsors Health Bucks, offering shoppers a free $2 coupon for every $5 spent in food stamps at participating farmers markets.
  • All Portland, OR farmers markets have EBT stations, and the Fresh Exchange program offers a dollar-for-dollar match up to $5 at two markets in lower-income neighborhoods.
  • Starting this season, Evanston, IL will offer shoppers at the downtown farmers market 50 cents of credit for every $1 they spend with food stamps.

Nonprofits, local governments, and private foundations are bringing these benefits to thousands, but with 44 million Americans on food stamps, they need help. Federal funding in the upcoming Farm Bill to expand these programs to the national level, for example, could be one way to bring more healthy food to those who need it, boost business for family farms, keep more grocery dollars circulating in local economies, and build more vibrant communities by making farmers markets more accessible and affordable to all.

What’s your community doing to make farmers markets more accessible? Tell us in the comments.