For many, it's a familiar scene. The rows of white canopy tents, people smiling and milling about, tote bags in hand. Fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, honey, and milk on display with affable farmers standing over them like proud parents. The Farmers' Market is a communal tradition nearly as old as agriculture itself. It's a place where you can talk to the person that grew the food you'll be eating. You can discover new vegetables, new varieties, and new recipes. You can chat with neighbors while taking in the kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. It's more than just picking up some groceries. It's the antithesis of shopping at big box stores, where annoying music is piped in, the artificial light skews your perception of your purchase, and you are hundreds if not thousands of miles removed from the person that grew the food (if it was actually grown at all).
Going to a farmers' market is an experience. A nourishing, educating, and enriching experience.
Unfortunately, it too often seems to be the exclusive realm of hipsters, professors, and those with disposable income. Because of misinformation and misunderstanding, a false barrier seems to exist between the Farmers' Market and those who need financial assistance.
Misinformation and misunderstanding are in danger of becoming the American way. You’ve probably heard people say it. Maybe you have even thought it yourself. It’s a widely believed myth that people that are in need of government assistance will use their benefits from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or "food stamps") to purchase things like alcohol, tobacco, or big priced items like caviar. Despite the fact that there are guidelines to what can be purchased and one simply cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco with SNAP (and who the hell wants to eat caviar anyway?) the corrosive myth remains. Politicians gunning to end or restrict the benefits say that the people needing the assistance only purchase junk food despite data that shows that those using SNAP buy virtually the same food as everyone else. (The bad news, of course, is that everyone is buying too much junk food).
The problem is supply, not demand. Grocery stores are loaded with prepackaged, harmful foods, mostly made of artificial derivatives of corn and soy, which are heavily subsidized by the same government that many people and some politicians claim are giving out too much money to the poor. The fresh items are strategically placed on the perimeters of the stores to create the illusion of choice. There's far more junk food than fresh food available in nearly all food stores. People will buy what's available, and only giant food corporations and agri-businessmen (nominally known as "conventional farmers") will benefit.
Locally grown, healthy, nutritious food must be made available to everyone.
In 2012, funding started becoming available so that those needing SNAP assistance could use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at Farmers' Markets. Of course there needed to be technological resources that went along with it to be able to scan cards. Your local farmer doesn't even always have a way to accept credit card payments, let alone EBT payments. In 2013, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service opted to provide wireless equipment grants directly to markets and local farmers. This has created a path that has allowed those needing assistance to take advantage of the opportunities provided by Farmers' Markets, but adoption of these technologies takes time and resources. And educating the public and participants of these programs is of paramount importance as well.
In the Flathead Valley, a small collection of communities that are situated just west of the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park, a strong network of small farms exists. Experts in growing food in an area plagued by a short growing season and unpredictable weather, these local farmers are alchemists, combining soil, sun, water, love, and tireless work to grow an amazing variety of foods. As is often the case with small (and really the only remaining real) farmers, they don't view each other as competitors, but instead work together as allies and advocates for their wares.
Collectively, they support and are supported by Farm Hands--Nourish The Flathead, an organization tasked with giving support to all people of their community in experiencing, local and homegrown food. They strive to connect their community to local food through production, education and access. They have 10 different programs to help in their mission, including going into areas schools and educating the students about nutrition. They distribute “school coins” that are worth $5 to each student to be able to use at the Farmers' Market on fruits and veggies of their choice. They also act as a conduit converting SNAP benefits (and dealing with the EBT cards) into money that can be easily spent at each farmer's booth. Additionally, they offer "Double Dollars" for SNAP participants, matching dollar for dollar (up to $10) money spent at the market.
On a late August afternoon, in Whitefish, Montana, a small Farmers' Market was abuzz. Loaded with tourists drawn to the area by Glacier National Park and all the surrounding beauty. Teeming with the requisite hipsters. But also, a welcoming place for those less fortunate. As we helped distribute Market Dollars to SNAP participants, we were able to talk to several, all of them looking forward to going around and buying healthy, delicious, local produce. One woman was excited to head straight to the “guy with the best melons." Another woman, accompanied by her two children said she had been saving up all week to be able to come to the market. An old man was simply glad that it was close-by, making his walk there a bit easier on his high-mileage legs. None of them lamenting that they'd end the day with zucchini, kale, and melons instead of corn chips, cookies, and candy.
Everyone needs access to nutritious, fresh, healthy foods, and they also need to experience the joy and culture that is found at a Farmers' Market. It makes for healthier people and stronger communities.
For information on starting and promoting a SNAP program at your local market, please visit the SNAP Guide for Farmers Markets or go to https://www.fns.usda.gov/ebt/snap-and-farmers-markets to get more information.