By Amanda Beland
Fresh, local vegetables at farmers markets were once a luxury affordable for those with deep pockets and expendable incomes. These days, the diversity of market crowds is as varied at the produce for sale.
One of the growing subsections of the farmers market crowd in Boston are those who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
In 2012, $16.5 million in SNAP benefits was spent at over 3,200 farmers markets in the United States. This is more than a 10-fold increase from 2007, when just $1.6 million in SNAP money was spent at a little over 530 country markets. In Massachusetts, SNAP is accepted at over 200 farmers markets.
Game, Set, Match
Part of the increase is due to a number of city-wide fund matching programs that look to encourage healthy eating through SNAP use at farmers markets.
Boston’s Bounty Bucks is the largest and most well known of these programs. It began in collaboration with the organization The Food Project and Boston Mayor Tom Menino in 2008 as a pilot program. Seven farmers markets participated in the program’s inaugural year.
In 2013, 18 farms participated in the program, including the Copley Square farmers market, one of the largest markets in the Commonwealth.
The idea is simple. SNAP users register how much they plan to spend with the farm manager when they get to the market. The market matches up to $10 of what the user plans to spends. The
A SNAP card holder can buy $20 worth of vegetables for just $10 if they register and spend the maximum match amount.
Farm Manager Vanessa Buttolph handles Bounty Buck transactions at the Central Square farmers market in Cambridge. She also works at the Copley Square farmers market. Buttolph said she typically handles between 130 to 150 Bounty Bucks transactions at each market.
In Central Square, she’ll process close to 60 transactions during the summer and between 30 and 40 as the temperatures drop.
“It’s a great incentive for them to use their SNAP and government money,” said Buttolph.
A Changing, Healthier Demographic
The study found that of the surveyed 173 SNAP farmers market shoppers, 42 percent were between the ages of 18 and 30 and 33 percent had either a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or both. The median age of SNAP benefactors who shopped at farmers markets was 40 years old.
Match Made in Food Heaven
But Bounty Bucks isn’t the only matching fund program in the Commonwealth.
The Massachusetts Farmers Market Association piloted a digital matching program at the Copley Square, Davis Square and Central Square markets this summer. The program – in similar fashion to Bounty Bucks – matches SNAP user purchases at the market up to $10. But unlike the BB program, there is no plastic coupon given upon registration. This is an entirely electronic transfer system.
According to Buttolph, each farm vendor has an iPod-like device at their booth. When a SNAP user purchases something, the vendor swipes their card using the device. This allows SNAP users to keep track of their purchases digitally and in real time, eliminating the use of physical bucks in the matching program.
Currently, the system is in an infant stage, but Mass Farmers hopes donations and more awareness of the program will help them expand it to more markets in upcoming farm seasons.
For more information on the Mass. Farmers program, visit its website.
For more information on the Bounty Bucks program, including farmers market locations, visit the program’s website.