Healthy lift for families, farmers too
For Bob Silverman, 68, handpicked organic produce used to be a luxury, buying from farmers markets an occasional splurge. The retiree relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits - formerly known as food stamps - to pay for his groceries, and at the supermarket they simply didn’t stretch far enough to cover a fridge full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
But this season, things are different. Every Thursday, Silverman visits the Belmont Farmers’ Market to buy red heart plums, fresh peaches, homemade hummus, and grape leaves. He chats with the vendors and enjoys the sunshine.
Belmont’s weekly session has joined the growing number of outdoor venues across the state accepting SNAP. Thanks to a $2,000 grant from the state, the market matches every SNAP dollar up to $25, letting low-income families double the amount of locally produced goods that they can obtain with their benefit.
“The quality here is so much better,’’ Silverman said. “There are real practical reasons to come each week.’’ He spends about $100 of his SNAP benefits at the Belmont market every month, and the match gives him another $100.
“There’s a big, big push right now to get fresh food into the mouths of people who might have trouble getting it otherwise,’’ said Suzanne Johannet, a manager at the Belmont Farmers’ Market, which is a project of the nonprofit Belmont Food Collaborative. “There’s a lot of buzz about it.’’
And in Belmont, there are more and more mouths to feed. According to the Department of Transitional Assistance, which runs the SNAP program, the number of Belmont residents getting benefits has more than doubled in the last three years, from 348 in January 2008 to 742 as of May.
This sharp spike is a familiar story in the Bay State, where one in eight residents relies on SNAP to put food on the table, up from one in 13 four years ago, records show.
But from these gloomy numbers, an unusual and promising partnership has emerged. The Department of Transitional Assistance and the state Department of Agricultural Resources, along with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Inc., began giving out grants to the local markets last year to help them begin accepting SNAP benefits.
In Belmont, one of this year’s 32 recipients, the program is a smashing success.
“People on food stamps know how to shop, they just can’t afford it,’’ said Lexington resident Gus Schumacher, who served as commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture in the 1980s, and is the executive vice president for policy at Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to making fresh produce available to low-income people. Wholesome Wave is collaborating with the state grant program.
“If you make healthy fresh local food available in their neighborhoods, they flock in,’’ he said.
The grants pay for the machines required to process SNAP benefits, which are loaded onto a debit card and can be used to pay for food as well as food-producing plants and seeds. The grants cover transaction fees and promotional costs, and they also cover incentives, like Belmont’s dollar-doubling, to encourage SNAP recipients to shop at farmers’ markets.
In 2009, the year before the grant program started, SNAP clients spent $19,119 at farmers markets. Under the new system last year, the number jumped by more than 500 percent to $116,813.
This year, according to Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, a statewide industry group, SNAP clients are on track to spend upwards of $200,000.
“The demand is there, the need is there,’’ said Cole. “Candy bar, junk food, soda - replacing that with produce is a much, much healthier lifestyle. Society as a whole will benefit the more people who make that choice.’’
It’s not just the SNAP clients who are benefiting from the program, since it gives local farmers access to customers that they had not been able to reach, according to Scott Soares, commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources, who said that was a big part of the plan.
“The beauty of it going to the farming community is that the farmers are investing in their businesses, they’re expanding their businesses, they’re hiring more people, they’re farming more land,’’ he said. “It’s really a good economic development tool.’’
In Belmont, market managers hope to use up their entire grant for the season. If that happens, they’ll begin fund-raising to keep the matching program going.
“Outreach has been building, there’s been a lot of word of mouth,’’ said Johannet. “My gut feeling is that it’s just going to be a growing thing.’’
It will be, if their market follows the same trajectory as the nearby Lexington Farmers Market, which began a privately funded SNAP program last year that helped inspire Belmont’s participation. Lexington hopes to double its SNAP sales this year, officials said.
“It’s cash for us and it’s good eating for other people,’’ said Ken Nicewicz, tending the Nicewicz Family Farm counter in the center of the Belmont market.
Silverman, his bag full of plums from the Nicewicz farm, is thrilled with the arrangement. He’s glad to leave behind what he considers the cheaper, blander produce that supermarkets offer.
“It’s important how things taste,’’ he said. “Sometimes, the peaches are so good I’ll eat them all before I even get home.’’