A part of me wishes every day was Saturday. And that’s mostly because of my local farmers’ market.
I love farmers’ markets: the comfortable crowds, the farmers, the tomatoes, the peaches, the colors, the sounds, the discovery of one more thing that apparently needed to get an “artisan” designation….
If I had the ability, I’d choose the farmers’ market over the grocery store any day. But even though I know the market is full of great stuff, it’s still pricey—which means that I can’t afford to actually buy foods there regularly.
Though the food at farmers’ markets is frequently more expensive than your local Walmart or superstore, that’s for good reason: farmers’ markets are often designed with more than just profit in mind. Community markets are conscious of the environment, because selling direct to nearby consumers reduces so many waste producing elements (such as packaging and shipping). And, whether they meet organic standards or not, food that’s brought directly to markets for immediate consumption doesn’t require extra preservation.
But there’s a wide gap between people who can afford to attend their local farmers’ market, and those who can’t.
So I was surprised and happy to find that many farmer’s markets in the D.C. area go out of their way to make produce accessible to people who receive food assistance.
Why should a community farmers’ market care about access to fruits and veggies? Christie Balch, Executive Director of the Crossroads Community Food Network, which runs the Takoma Park Farmer’s Market, explained to me via email how the mission of environment and community intersect:
“Our market strives to be environmentally friendly and inclusive of all in our community. Everyone has the right to healthy, clean, safe food, and farmers have the right to work in safe conditions.”
Balch tells the story of Elida, a resident who regularly uses the option to double her SNAP & WIC benefits at the Crossroads Market with their matching program Fresh Checks. Through the program, Elida was able to offer her kids healthier food options on a more regular basis.
This program is literally putting healthy food in children’s hands.
As anyone who’s looked into the food insecurity issue knows, getting fresh fruits and veggies into a diet that is limited by budget constraints is nearly impossible. The average consumer struggles with food costs for their family. For people living at or below the poverty line, the challenge to eat healthily can be overwhelming. The maximum allowance for a family of four receiving SNAP benefits comes out to just over $5.00 a day per person. It’s tough to spend just that on lunch. Imagine feeding a teenage boy on $5.00 a day.
Benefits at farmer’s markets specifically address this issue. Through the farmers’ market benefit program, patrons can receive either matching benefits or a voucher for use in the market—which means their dollars can go farther at the market than at a regular store.
DC Hunger Solutions estimates that within the District, 13.4% of residents experience food insecurity. In the suburbs, there are more individuals, families, and seniors who are struggling to get enough to eat. But these programs are making a real difference: last year alone, farmers’ market organization FreshFarms matched $55,000 of SNAP, Senior, and WIC benefits with their matching dollars program. Crossroads gave out over $60,000 worth of food to families in the DC area. Produce Plus, a benefits program that runs on vouchers, gave out $165,000 worth of food vouchers.
Last week, I caught up with Megan Day, a worker at the FreshFarm market in Dupont Circle. FreshFarms, like Crossroads and other area markets, offers matching benefits, so SNAP recipients can use, say $4.00 worth of their benefits and receive, in return, tokens equaling $8.00.
“Food access is a two-sided thing,” Day shares. “The cost of food at farmer’s markets is higher, but its ethically raised. I think matching dollars helps bridge the gap for people.”
But it’s not enough to bring the cost of locally sourced, nutritionally sound and environmentally friendly food sources down for certain residents. We need bigger change—for farmers, and for the people living in poverty. “All people need a living wage,” Day says simply. Programs that offer food assistance are important, but opportunities for citizens to have equal access to all basic resources is essential as well.
And of course, in order to use a farmers’ market benefit, people need to have access to a local farmers’ market, and time to go shopping. Those are serious problems we can’t solve with a $10 voucher.
I know that farmer’s markets benefits aren’t a cure-all for either the widespread problem or the root causes of hunger. Still, I love that it’s a collaborative, community-based effort. I can see that the market in my neighborhood has a positive impact on everyone who participates, from the farmer who grows the food, to the neighborhood that shares the benefits of the market, to the people who receive the benefits.
And that makes me feel like my dollars spent at farmers’ markets are worth it—even if I can’t buy something every week.
Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.