Double Goodness: How Local and Federal Dollars Partner to Benefit the Apex Farmer’s Market

It’s not often that we can watch a dollar make a generous circle with its purchasing power – but thanks to a $3,000 donation from RTI, this is the viewing pleasure of shoppers and vendors at the Apex Farmer’s Market. Abundance NC channeled its gift from RTI to the Apex market, which has used the funds to supplement those from USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in order to advantage both people who need healthy food and those who grow and provide it.

SNAP makes it possible for benefits to be used not only in traditional markets like grocery stores, but at USDA-eligible farmer’s markets as well. For families with little income, fresh produce can be considered an inaccessible luxury. By opening farmer’s markets to SNAP shoppers, the nutritional density of foods consumed increases, making this program a critical obesity prevention strategy. With almost half the 8,500 farmer’s markets participating country-wide, $19.4 million of SNAP benefits was redeemed for local produce just last year, representing a four-fold increase from 2009 and marking the significance of this program as a revenue stream for local farmers, who also struggle to earn a living wage. As more markets participate and new families are reached, the impact of this program will only grow.

Since the Apex Farmer’s Market received USDA approval to accept SNAP dollars, shoppers have used their SNAP/EBT card (like a debit card) to purchase healthy, local produce from its vendors. With Abundance NC’s contribution of RTI funds, the Apex Farmer’s Market can now match each SNAP dollar spent there – effectively doubling the amount the purchaser spends and the farmer receives.

Here’s how it works. A shopper with a SNAP/EBT card is welcomed by a Market staff member or volunteer and purchases tokens for the amount they want to spend. The shopper may also swipe their card at a point-of-sale (POS) terminal in exchange for a paper receipt. Then, because of the RTI donation, the Market doubles the amount of tokens shoppers can use to purchase food. At the end of the market day, shoppers have high value food in their kitchens, and vendors have a check for the sum of the benefits redeemed at their stand to invest in their farms and the local economy.

A challenge is getting the word out to SNAP/EBT shoppers and Apex Farmers Market is working on better communications and outreach to bring in more families to take advantage of this program.

Michelle Ristuccia, who uses the program, says this: “SNAP benefits at the farmer’s market mean everything to my family. My children get a great education and personal connection to the freshest possible food available. In chain grocery stores, we are surrounded by packages of cheaply made treats often full of questionable ingredients. At the Apex Farmers Market, we are surrounded by real food and the real people who grow it–like Little River Eco Farms and Hilltop Farms. Then we go home and cook together and eat healthier snacks, like apples grown in the NC mountains. Since many farmers cannot accept EBT cards, it is important to us that the market can on their behalf. It seems strange that we could go to any grocery store to buy a cartful of cookies and ice cream, yet our options for buying directly from local farmers is limited. We often spend less at the market than at a store because the food is more filling and reasonably priced. Thank you for making good food available to our family of five.”

About this family, Apex Market Manager Carlaine Reynolds shares: “Market days are very hectic.  Vendors arrive, tents go up, everyone puts their hard work on display for customers to peruse and buy. The 8:30 bell goes off and the public starts to come.  Mostly families, some couples, and seniors wander around and are smiling because of the colors, and smells that abound.  Many stop by the welcome tent, but the most heart-warming is a mother of five children all below the age of eight.  She uses her EBT card expecting the customary $20 match and is thrilled when she learns we match dollar for dollar.  So grateful to be able to buy fresh, less than 24 hours out of the ground fresh, and that she is able to purchase that much more with our match. The farmers are happy because they see their hard work going home with a lovely family.”

On the path to equity in our food systems, a federal dollar partners with a local dollar to move a local farmer closer to a living wage, community residents closer to being well-fed, and a local food system closer to being able to take care of the health and well-being of all who participate in it. And this is how it will happen – righting the inequalities created by our industrial food systems – each dollar traveling on the circular paths we create for it, with justice at the center.