Increasing food prices in the grocery stores, inflation, and supply chain shortages are causing concern for accessing and affording healthy food – especially for underserved populations and those relying on supplemental food assistance benefits. Now more than ever, it is important for individuals to develop ties back to the food system, which is why University of Maryland Extension (UME) Maryland SNAP-Ed is connecting those experiencing food insecurity with farmers and farmers’ markets to increase accessibility to fresh, local foods.
SNAP-Ed educators are working one-on-one with farmers through a partnership with the Maryland Department of Health, and a multi-year grant from the Centers of Disease Control, to facilitate the acceptance of SNAP/EBT benefits at community markets, farm stands, and CSAs.
“We’re seeking to bring about positive, healthy change and increase healthy food access for everyone,” said Lynn Rubin Traversa, Healthy Food Systems Coordinator with UME’s education arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed), a U.S. Department of Agriculture nationwide initiative to teach people how to maximize their SNAP dollars and provide nutritious meals for their families. “We partner with farmers to help them understand how they can directly help increase community access to healthy food, drive sales and increase their own bottom line.”
The state of Maryland provides over $200 million each month through SNAP benefits alone, said Traversa, which is in addition to funds distributed through programs like Maryland WIC, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and Maryland Market Money, an incentive program that matches food supplement benefits dollar for dollar. These programs generate more buying power for shoppers, and more revenue for farmers.
“We encourage farmers to accept food supplement dollars directly, as a method of payment, empowering shoppers to buy fresh, local foods. Some programs are exclusive to farmers markets or farm stands and those dollars can only be spent in that way,” Traversa said. “We work really hard to help farmers and market managers understand the importance of applying to accept these benefits because it increases healthy food access and food equity for all, stimulates the local economy, and ultimately, it puts more money in the farmer’s bank account.”
Services for farmers aren’t limited to navigating the application process for benefits acceptance; they include changes to the physical space to create more accessibility through pricing, signage, layout, and flow. Educators work with farmers to develop digital marketing plans and create a social media presence, making farms and their products more accessible by allowing consumers to determine where supplemental benefits are accepted before venturing out to shop.
“It’s not enough to accept these benefits; farmers need to let the community know they’re accepting them to engage individuals shopping with food supplement benefits, drive them to the market through social media and promotion, and utilize signage and pricing strategies to support shopping with benefits at the markets and farm stands,” Traversa said.
Partnering with SNAP-Ed also helps farmers understand what they can gain by taking these steps -- increased customer base, increased income streams, and increased sustainability. “A farmer might be at one market in the morning and in a different county in the afternoon, and with direct benefits acceptance, it means farmers can serve those populations everywhere they sell. The farmer is able to make food accessible anywhere they are.”
To learn more about Maryland SNAP-Ed, or to find a local educator, go to https://extension.umd.edu/programs/family-consumer-sciences/snap-ed.