‘The market is for me, too’

Harvest Bucks program doubles SNAP dollars at Boulder County Farmers Markets

County Commissioners giving out SNAP and Harvest Bucks at the Boulder County Farmers Market.

“Our mission is essentially two fold,” says Brian Coppom, Executive Director of Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM). “One is to support local agriculture and the other is to connect growers and the community. Part of how we attempt to meet our mission is in normalizing this way of shopping so that the majority of people are participating in it. It is really about changing the way people perceive food and what it means in their lives.”

On any given Saturday, 9,000 people come to the Longmont and Boulder farmers’ markets, or just less than .5 percent of the population. In some ways, that is a very big number, especially when you consider all of those people packed into two little market squares.

But in other ways that number is small, especially when you consider that the people who attend are usually only those who can afford to come.

“I think the markets are often seen as being an expensive alternative to grocery stores,” Coppom says. “That is true if you compare them directly in terms of just price.”

Price matters to everybody, but especially for low-income shoppers. BCFM measures volume of low-income shoppers by how many Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars are redeemed at the market. SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a federal program that provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people living in the U.S. From 2008 to 2013 the number of SNAP dollars redeemed at BCFM was stagnant, hovering around $10,000 a season.

To try and increase that number, BCFM partnered with Boulder County Public Health to match SNAP dollars with Harvest Bucks, a farmers’-market specific benefit for both SNAP and Women, Infant and Children program recipients. The partnership essentially doubles the amount of money available to participants of the federal program.

Over 2015, in the course of just one season, the number of SNAP dollars redeemed at BCFM increased by 289 percent to $38,930. Including the matched Harvest Bucks, $76,184 of food was purchased by SNAP program participants at BCFM with the revenue going straight to the farmers.

The increase is substantial enough to attract federal funding for the program in 2016 and to expand the program to the BCFM-operated Union Station market in Denver. With the federal funding the name of the program will be transitioning to Double Up Food Bucks Colorado over the course of the next several months.

As the program continues to grow, administrators are also seeking local sources of funding. Boulder County voters will weigh in on the extension of the .25 percent sales and use tax, half of which would be directed toward supporting sustainability programs, including the Harvest Bucks program.

SNAP redemption increased 289 percent at Boulder County Farmers Markets, including the Longmont market pictured here, in one season due to the Harvest Bucks incentive.
SNAP redemption increased 289 percent at Boulder County Farmers Markets, including the Longmont market pictured here, in one season due to the Harvest Bucks incentive. Courtesy of BCFM

As a percentage of overall revenue the SNAP number is still very small, in the single digits, Coppom says, but it is very meaningful and provides many synergies. It directly increases sales for local farmers, increases access to nutritious fruits and vegetables for low-income residents and benefits the community.

Coppom warns of being overly simplistic though, and says that the underlying value of the program is in the ways it addresses what he considers to be an impoverished food culture in the United States, which he explains in two parts.

The first is that the price of food does not reflect its true cost. We tend to want to compare the price of food between markets and groceries, but in that comparison we forget hidden costs of imported food that is coming from places where farm workers tend to get paid less, environmental standards tend to be lower and the varieties of vegetables and fruits grown are bred specifically for efficient transportation, often yielding a very low quality product from a nutritional standpoint.

“As a culture we often overlook those other factors when we consider price comparison,” Coppom says. “The price of food available at the farmers’ market reflects the true cost of growing. The farmers there make very low profit margins on their food, it’s just that that is what it costs to grow food in reality.”

The second part of food poverty, Coppom says, is that our culture tends to undervalue food.

“In the United States we spend six to eight percent of our income on food,” he says. “That is the lowest percentage in the entire world. And that includes countries like Sweden that pay 12 to 15 percent and they have much higher incomes than we do on average. So it isn’t that food costs too much, but rather that we are not willing to spend money on food. What I like about the Harvest Bucks program is that it starts to address the poverty from that side.”

Some people can adjust their spending to reflect these values, but for low-income shoppers, food is something that needs to be purchased at the lowest possible price point. The Harvest Bucks program removes that restriction and opens up the personal and community benefits of local agriculture to broad swaths of the community.

Rachel Arndt, who administers the program for Boulder County Public Health, is enthused by the increase of SNAP dollar redemption at markets since the introduction of Harvest Bucks. From a public health standpoint, she is glad that program participants have improved access to the most nutritional fruits and vegetables. 

She also celebrates the ways Harvest Bucks is overcoming cultural and financial barriers to the farmers’ market. According to a survey of program participants, 83 percent said that they would not come to the farmers’ market without the program, a number Arndt attributes to barriers like lack of transportation, time and money. Harvest Bucks counteracts those obstacles by incentivizing the purchase of high quality food, but she also suspects more subtle, cultural elements at play.

“One of the benefits that we didn’t foresee or see as much is that the farmers market is a community venue,” Arndt says. “It is an event to attend and a social activity for families to go to and SNAP participants report that as a very high value to them. One woman told me that the market, because of finances, was an off-limit community benefit. But now that she has the extra bucks, she feel that the market is for her, too. 

“Local food shouldn’t be a luxury,” she continues. “Healthy eating shouldn’t be a luxury. It should be something that everybody in our community regardless of income, can afford and that is really the public health goal.”

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