Surviving the erratic market shifts of the coronavirus pandemic has been a wild ride for Western North Carolina farmers, and for many, the sailing remains far from smooth. But local programs aimed at helping food-insecure residents increase access to fresh, healthy food are offering some buoyancy to growers struggling to stay afloat in COVID-19’s choppy economic waters.
Since 2009, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project has helped tailgate markets throughout WNC accept federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps), with one of the nonprofit’s programs matching those benefits dollar for dollar on purchases of edible items. Last summer, as COVID-19 drastically increased community need and upset farmers’ income streams, ASAP extended the Double SNAP initiative launched at the Asheville City Market in 2019 to include the East Asheville, Enka-Candler, North Asheville and West Asheville tailgate markets and expanded existing incentive programs at the Hendersonville, Mills River and Transylvania farmers markets.
According to a report ASAP released in December, Double SNAP incentives, combined with rising food insecurity, have dramatically increased sales for farmers and food vendors at all of those eight markets. Market managers and vendors at the participating markets saw SNAP transactions nearly triple from 2019 to 2020, and 80% of responding vendors said they’d experienced sales growth due to the program.
“I always like to find promotions that have multiple winners, and this is one of them: the folks who’ve received the SNAP benefits and then all those dollars going to the farmers and vendors at the market, especially now with things being so challenging,” says ASAP farmers market program manager Mike McCreary, who helped coordinate efforts to expand Double SNAP.
Kate Hanford, manager of the Asheville City Market (operating during the pandemic as the ASAP Farmers Market at A-B Tech), says vendors who sell SNAP-eligible items — fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, eggs, dairy products, seeds and garden starts — are benefiting greatly from Double SNAP, due to both an overall rise in the number of shoppers and higher sales totals. Meat vendors in particular, she adds, are seeing a huge spike in sales.
“I have this one family who has made it a point to tell me several times that they would never be able to afford this quality of meat if it weren’t for the Double SNAP program,” she says.
Those meat lovers aren’t alone: Among SNAP customers surveyed at the markets, 96% said they had changed their grocery-buying habits because of the incentive, with some shopping at a tailgate market for the first time. And half of the customers surveyed said they would continue to shop at local farmers markets even if the markets stopped doubling SNAP dollars.
While some markets cap the amount SNAP customers can double, the ASAP Farmers Market does not, so Double SNAP sales can really add up. “Some larger families will come and spend $200 to receive $400,” says Hanford. “That’s not uncommon.”
‘In spite of everything’
Lauren Wood, manager at Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market in Waynesville, also saw vendor sales increase in 2020 as more customers took advantage of the Double Up Food Bucks SNAP incentive her market has offered in partnership with Macon County-based public health initiative MountainWise since 2019. She attributes part of that growth to the federal coronavirus relief package passed in March, which allowed some previously ineligible families with school-age children to qualify for SNAP.
“That was a new group of people who had never had [Electronic Benefits Transfers cards] before but now could use it,” Wood says. “And I definitely saw new customers who were new to EBT because they’d recently lost their jobs.” That fresh crop of shoppers helped more than double the total SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks transactions at the market from $4,246 in 2019 to $10,658 in 2020.
Although SNAP benefits can be used at Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market to buy all kinds of edible items, Double Up Food Bucks dollars, which are funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, can only be spent on fresh produce, seeds and plant starts. But that’s worked out just fine for Danielle Keeter, co-owner of Mighty Gnome Market Garden in Marshall.
Mighty Gnome had been selling organic vegetables and herbs at both the ASAP Farmers Market and Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market but consolidated its sales efforts at the Waynesville market starting in June. Between then and December, says Keeter, her farm saw three times as many Double Up sales as regular SNAP sales. “It was a great market season despite everything,” she says. “I’m just grateful that the program exists. Period. It’s been invaluable.”
Although the SNAP incentives are proving beneficial, their future at WNC markets is not assured. Double Up Food Bucks at Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market and several other markets will continue to be supported by federal funding and the Community Foundation of WNC through MountainWise through at least 2023. The USDA money is limited, however, and doesn’t allow for expansion to other sites.
ASAP’s Double SNAP is supported through donations from market shoppers and private donors, as well as grant funding from several area organizations. The ASAP Farmers Market and the Transylvania Farmers’ Market are open and will offer Double SNAP incentives through the winter, and ASAP plans to offer the program again at its participating markets in the spring. But sustaining the program, says McCreary, is a big challenge.
“When COVID came, a whole bunch of money became available to help folks stay safe and be healthy and have access to food. But in 2022, will that still be the priority?” he asks. “There isn’t really a steady stream of funding for Double SNAP that you can count on over time.”
Keeter is keeping her fingers crossed. “I hope more than anything that it continues to get the funding that it needs to grow,” she says. “It’s really wonderful for us farmers, and it sounds like it’s really great for the people who use SNAP.”