By Shelby Harris, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Linda Brittain was setting up her stand at the Mills River Farm Market one Saturday morning when she saw a little boy pick up a stone from the ground and hand it to her.
He was trying to buy an apple.
“He had assimilated over the summer that this is what we do — we give you something, and you give me that food on the table,” said Brittain, a former elementary school teacher and now the treasurer and secretary of the Mills River Farm Market.
She and her husband, Joe Brittain, now executive director of the market, took the reins of the town’s farmers market in 2009, one year after it opened, when the town government relinquished responsibility of the market to local farmers.
“A core group of about five or seven of us stepped up and said, ‘OK, we’ll keep it going,’ so we sort of became the first board of directors,” Linda said.
“Having never been involved in the birth of a farmers market, we had no idea what to do.”
But they figured it out.
Under the Brittains’ leadership, the Mills River Farm Market has doubled its vendors, provided educational programming and established the market as a popular community event that draws hundreds of visitors each Saturday from May to October.
The couple are proudest, though, of their work to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to people of all income levels. That initiative is now backed by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Making locally grown food accessible
For five generations, the Brittain family has tilled the soil on a small Mills River farm in northern Henderson County.
When squash or berries or okra sprang from the Western North Carolina ground, the Brittains would sell their produce. Or trade it. At the very least, the large family — who have lived in North Carolina since the American Revolution — would eat the fresh food.
When Joe took over the farm, he watched societal interest in locally grown food decline as grocery store chains grew and mass production flourished in the ’60s and ’70s.
“They either needed to get big or get out, and most of them got out,” Joe said about the struggle for local farmers.
“Then it got to the point where the [farmers] markets started coming back, and that started the push again for local food and eating in-season. And to me, that’s very important.”
It wasn’t just important to Joe that people who could afford fresh, locally grown produce had access to the food. He and Linda also wanted to ensure that anyone could participate in the farmers market.
So in 2014, the couple decided to begin accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, previously called food stamps, at the Mills River Farmers Market.
During the first year, few people took advantage of the new program at the market.
“So we started discussing, ‘What’s the stumbling block? Why are people not coming back? What can we do to make it better?’” Linda said.
“The obvious thing was to double the SNAP benefits because then, effectively, all prices are cut in half.”
The Brittains began taking donations from local businesses and donors to put toward doubling people’s SNAP benefits, and the process quickly evolved.
People would go to the farmers market, located in the parking lot of Mills River Elementary School, and buy, for example, $10 on their SNAP debit cards. They’d then get 20 tokens, which represented $20.
Then, those people would give the tokens to the vendors and walk away with double the amount of fresh produce they would have otherwise gotten. The vendors are still paid the full amount for the food.
The Brittains said, at first, vendors were skeptical of the token system, which is also used for people who don’t have cash. Anyone can purchase tokens, albeit not doubled, with a debit or credit card.
Eventually, when the local farmers — all of whom come from a 50-mile radius, except for one, a Western North Carolina native who sells the olive oil he harvests in Greece — figured out the tokens meant more people could buy their products, they jumped on board.
“After the first couple of weeks, when suddenly, they were bringing in an extra $50 to $150 to $200, they suddenly thought it was a good idea,” Joe said.
In 2021, more than $9,600 in SNAP benefits was used at the Mills River Farm Market. When doubled, that meant more than $19,000 in annual revenue for the market.
It’s hard to gauge how much money the farmers market truly brings in, Joe said, because vendors are not required to report how much they make in cash sales. However, the Brittains estimate the market makes profits of $100,000 to $150,000 annually.
That means the doubled SNAP benefits likely constituted between 13% and 20% of the market’s total sales in 2021.
Local government investment
Though the town government passed the farmers market responsibility to the community years ago, the Mills River Town Council has remained invested in the event.
Council members have approved funding for a trailer for transporting materials and special events at the farmers market over the last couple of years, Mills River Town Manager Daniel Cobb said.
This year, Mills River Farm Market officials requested local government funding to cover the hiring of a market manager.
“Several options for this were discussed, including the possibility of the town assuming ownership of the market and utilizing town employees to run it,” Cobb said.
“While there are pros and cons to this approach, ultimately, the Town Council decided to earmark funding to support the market so that they can continue their operations per their usual protocols.”
In the town’s 2022-23 budget, the farmers market is receiving more than $32,000 for a manager, supplies and events, Cobb said.
But the town is investing more than just the $32,000. Earlier this year, the Town Council allotted $75,000 of its roughly $1.18 million American Rescue Plan Act funds to go toward the market — specifically, toward doubling SNAP benefits. That equals roughly $17,500 for four years.
The Brittains approached the Town Council last winter and asked if ARPA could be used to double SNAP benefits at the market. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing economic strain on many businesses and individuals, donations were harder to come by.
In January, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released its final guidelines on how ARPA dollars could be spent — giving local governments more freedom with the federal dollars and emphasizing investments in local nonprofits, like the Mills River Farm Market.
Shortly thereafter, council members approved the spending.
“It’s a win-win,” Mills River Mayor Shanon Gonce said about using ARPA, federal COVID-19 recovery money, to bolster the farmers market.
“It’s a win for the farmers. And it’s a win for the families.”
Having more than $17,000 in the bank account to cover the SNAP doubling is a relief for the Brittains, who said they, more than once, have worried about having enough donations to cover the thousands of SNAP dollars.
Now, all they have to do is send a monthly invoice to the town, which will then double SNAP benefits.
Other than assuaging the anxiety that there wouldn’t be enough money to double the benefits, Mills River’s investment in the farmers market paves the way for it to continue to grow, the Brittains said. The ARPA cushion and newly hired market manager mean the organization can now focus on other things, such as accepting new vendors and expanding educational opportunities.
Mostly though, the federal funding allows the Mills River Farm Market to continue solidifying itself as a community asset that supports local farmers, encourages healthy eating for all and occasionally allows children to trade rocks for apples.