In an effort to expand buyers’ access to fresh, local produce, the federal government has contributed $4 million to aid low-income consumers in purchasing food from farmers’ markets. The federal Food and Nutrition Service’s (FNS) food stamp program, officially renamed as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in October 2008, provides food aid to about 44.2 million Americans – just over 14 percent of the country’s total population. Food stamp usage is highest in the South, where as much as 20 percent of the region’s population participates in SNAP.
The money will be allocated to farmers’ markets in various states, and will enable farmers’ markets to install electronic point-of-sale technology at cash registers that will allow farmers to accept and process food stamps. Eleven farmers’ markets in Delaware will receive a total of about $5,000, while 687 California markets will receive the largest grant, totaling nearly $427,000. The federal government’s decision will stimulate local economies nationwide and encourage people to visit farmers’ markets to try new foods and adopt nourishing eating habits.
By accepting food stamps, farmers’ markets will promote healthy eating and provide nutritious food to people who would not otherwise have access to a diverse array of locally-grown fruits and vegetables. More than 11 million low-income Americans live in so-called “food deserts,” meaning that they do not have easy or convenient access to large grocery stores carrying healthy food – and do not have access to reliable transportation – within a 10- or even 20-mile radius of their homes in rural areas, or within a one-mile radius in urban areas. Because supermarkets’ prices are typically lower than prices at convenience stores, Americans without convenient access to supermarkets have to shop at smaller stores for a higher price. In addition, Americans who struggle to afford food often purchase the cheapest foods they can find, which are usually loaded with sugar, fat, sodium, preservatives, and chemicals. Food deserts primarily affect low-income Americans without the financial means to purchase fresh and healthy food, which is often more expensive than junk food.
In a statement published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), agriculture deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan said, “Our country’s 7,100 operating farmers markets offer opportunities to our children and their families to access healthy food across the country. SNAP participation at farmers’ markets helps provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families and expands the customer base for local farmers — a win-win for agriculture and local communities.”
Of the 7,100 farmers’ markets in operation across the country, more than 1,500 farmers’ markets currently accept food stamps through SNAP. Merrigan expects farmers’ markets to grow in popularity as a result of the $4 million in aid, as more customers take advantage of increased access to fresh and healthy produce. “When we couple this approach with strategies like the education, cooking demonstrations, and community support often found at farmers markets, consumption of healthy foods should rise even more,” she said.
States whose residents rely most heavily on food stamps include Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, New Mexico, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maine, and South Carolina. The use of food stamps has risen considerably following the economic recession, which hit in 2008. In 2006, SNAP had 26.5 million users; by 2009, that number had risen to 33 million and had climbed even higher to the current 44.2 million by 2011. A growing number of Americans who rely on federal aid to purchase food translates to higher costs incurred by the federal government: in 2010, food stamps cost the government a total of $64 billion.
To find a farmers’ market near you, enter your zip code at the online USDA National Farmers Market Directory.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/2539937014