Locally grown food tends to be more nutrient-rich than produce that’s shipped from thousands of miles away, and the money stays in the area economy. Plus, shopping at the farmers market helps community members get to know each other, encouraging mingling and conversation between people who otherwise might not cross paths.
But the farmers market isn’t really a routine stop for low-income people.
Beginning June 6, the Haywood market will look at attacking one reason for that typical lack of use with its launch of the WiseBucks program. The program will allow SNAP users to double the value of their benefits when buying fruits and veggies at the farmers market. People using the program would receive vouchers in $2 increments — up to $10 worth per visit — to supplement what they get through SNAP.
For example, if a family spent $10 on fruits and vegetables, the grant-funded WiseBucks program would provide funds to double the value to $20. The incentive dollars could be spent only on Haywood-grown produce, not on other items sold there like pottery or knit hats.
The program is modeled on the Double Your Bucks program, used at 350 farmers markets nationwide and providing about 40,000 families with access to affordable food each year. In 2014, the Farm Bill included more than $100 million to support existing nutrition incentive programs and help them expand.
“We’re hoping that it will go through August, and if we have any funds left over we will keep running the program until we’re out of funds,” said Melissa Rockett of MountainWise, which has been working with the Haywood market to write grants and get started with SNAP.
The Haywood Farmers Market — which just secured its status as a 501c3 nonprofit — has $14,000 for the program, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Haywood Healthcare Foundation and $9,000 from Appalachian Foodshed Project, a regional organization focused on improving access to food in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
Though the machine needed to process SNAP benefits was paid for through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, it took some doing to get approval to accept those benefits, Rockett said.
“I worked with them for probably about six to eight months before they were approved to accept SNAP,” she said. “It’s kind of a long process.”
It was longer still for the Jackson County Farmers Market, which in late 2012 became the first North Carolina market west of Asheville to take SNAP benefits. For them, it was a four-year process. The time involved and cost of maintaining the program are the main reasons why farmers markets that accept SNAP are relatively rare, said Jackson’s market manager Jenny McPherson.
“Sometimes you can find an incentive program that will give you the machine, which costs about $600, and will pay for the fees, which are about $30 a month, for the first year, but you need to have a plan in place for how you will proceed after that,” she said. “You have to have somebody that’s willing to do it and you have to have somebody that’s willing to be present at the market working the machine.”
Then, you have to get SNAP users to the market. That’s proven hard to do in Jackson, McPherson said. Use increases each year, but right now only about two or three SNAP users come to the market each week.
Currently, the market is working to get funding for an incentive program similar to the one set to launch in Haywood, which McPherson think will increase participation. Other issues include awareness that the market exists and transportation to get there.
“I think that [transportation] is an issue because we are pretty spread out as a county,” McPherson said. “Not a whole lot of people live within walking distance of the market.”
James said Haywood will likely face those same challenges, but the need for better nutrition among Haywood residents is real. According to the 2013 Regional Community Health Assessment, Haywood residents on average consume only two of the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
But in a recent MountainWise survey of more than 100 low-income participants at the Haywood Health and Human Services Agency, 98 percent said they would plan to participate in the WiseBucks program. However, the same survey showed that 60 percent of DSS clients said they did not know Haywood County had a farmers market. Therefore, education will be a significant component of the campaign to improve farmers market access for low-income people in Haywood County.
“I’m meeting with DSS next week to see if there’s any way we can start a shuttle to the market, and I met with Mountain Projects, who works with Head Start families and Circles of Hope and the Senior Nutrition Program,” Rockett said in an interview last week. “They felt like most of their families who use these programs have access to a vehicle.”
James is hoping for success with this next chapter of the market’s story and is excited to now be one of only two markets west of Asheville to take SNAP.
“Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market is an active community place, where individuals young and old have the opportunity to interact — to dance to the music, to appreciate candid conversations between kids and farmers, or just to sit a spell,” she said. “We are a family, and we look forward to welcoming so many more to the family fold.”
Haywood’s taking card payments
In addition to SNAP benefits, the Haywood Historic Farmers Market is now set up to take credit and debit payments, though a $1.50 flat fee will apply.