By Kathleen Thrane
Farmers markets are introducing a new program that makes produce around Boston more accessible to consumers.
Boston’s Wicked Fresh Market Dollars was a program originally started by The Food Project, an urban farming location in Dudley and the City of Lynn.
“We started it as our own program, where we were giving our constituents money to buy fruits and vegetables,” said Kathleen Sykes, the The Director of Development and Communications at The Food Project. “We are always looking for ways to make healthy local food affordable to people. We were giving out some money to subsidize people’s purchases at the farmer’s market. It was our own program. And Boston thought it was so great that Boston adopted it. And it was called a bounty box. It was a certain number of dollars per month that you got to pay for fruits and vegetables that were local. And then the state took it over.”
Eligible participants can use it at almost any farmers market in Boston. The program ran from July 18 – October 16, and was available at all participating markets. The program was a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Food Access.
“It’s what we call a win-win because it’s helping people with food access issues, and getting local, beautiful, healthy fruits and vegetables,” Sykes said. “And it’s also helping local farmers because they’re able to sell their vegetables at the subsidized rates but still recoup what they need. And so it’s also supporting small farms and those kinds of solutions in the long term that we’re looking for.”
This take-over by the state sparked something in the Department of Food Access for the City of Boston. Last year, the Wicked Fresh program was just a pilot. Now, the city is ready to make the coupons a staple in the community.
“We’re just calling them Farmers Market coupons now. They will be available starting July 1,” said Catalina Prada Valderrama, the Communications Director for the Department of Food Access in Boston. “Each coupon is $2.5, usually. People can get them by asking the farmers market managers and you can buy baked goods, fresh fruits and veggies. You can buy eggs, and you can buy meat with them. So it’s very broad, what you can buy with them.”
This push by Catalina and her office is an effort to supply non-SNAP shoppers with access to healthy produce.
“Specifically this effort is for non-SNAP. We know there’s a huge gap and that this is a way of helping people afford food, but also a way of supporting our farmers and local farmers. These coupons hit a very nice intersection of getting healthy food at farmer’s markets and helping our local farmers,” she said.
This is only the first way to get more affordable fresh produce in Boston. People who are eligible for SNAP benefits can enroll in the Healthy Incentives Program. The Healthy Incentives Program is automatically registered for all SNAP users, so there is no extra paperwork keeping fresh produce inaccessible.
These programs are beneficial for both consumers and farmers.
“I saved a lot of money last summer when I used the coupons,” Moradi said. “It helped me out with all the stresses of COVID, too.”
He found out about the coupons through a Facebook post last year.
Diana Nagle was not aware there were coupons available for people who aren’t eligible for SNAP benefits.
“I didn’t know I could use coupons at the farmers market,” she said, standing near a pile of cucumbers in Copley Square at the Copley Square Farmers Market. “I’ll look into it.”
Students who are off of school for the summer also benefit from these coupons, according to José Luis Rojas Villarreal. He is the Manager at Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and recently won a seat on the board of the Cambridge School Committee. During the pandemic, students were still able to get meals from their school cafeterias, but not during the summer.
“This goes back to when schools closed to students and teachers, the one area that did not close was the cafeterias in Cambridge. Those workers were the first people to get back into the building. And they started preparing meals for all the families,” he said. “The city basically just prepared lunches for all the kids and did not have to ask or worry about them giving food to people that are not qualified that way. We’re able to have free lunches and breakfasts throughout the pandemic, except for that first week.”
Many people who are not eligible for SNAP benefits do not know they are able to use Farmers Market Coupons, formerly Wicked Fresh Coupons. It’s easy to get them starting on July 1. At the front of the market, there will be a stand and the attendant will provide coupons to people who ask.
“It definitely has been proven to be a great resource for people,” said Gabrielle Witham, Assistant Director of Community Partnerships at Project Bread. “It provides a boost in purchasing power for people who are on SNAP, and the ability to get fresh, local fruits and vegetables that they may not have otherwise been able to afford, is certainly a benefit.”
Project Bread assists with food accessibility in Massachusetts. They work to boost federal nutrition programs. Project Bread advocates for SNAP, and has advocated successfully for adding $1.2 billion into SNAP payments in Massachusetts since March 2020.
“The Healthy Incentives Program has definitely been proven to be an excellent program, both for local food producers and farmers and for folks who are on SNAP, she said. “But obviously, it isn’t the end all be all solution to food insecurity. But it certainly is a great program and very useful. And it’s utilized well.”