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Food Assistance Programs are Small But Important at Farmers Markets

Farmers markets are a bridge between rural and urban communities. In the U.S., Iowa has one of the highest number of farmers markets per capita, more than 200 in the state.

It is National Farmers Market Week and the Iowa Department of Agriculture is highlighting nutrition programs. About 41 million people use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more than sixty percent of those are children or seniors. Households that want to provide local foods for their families have an opportunity with farmers markets.

Aubrey Alvarez the Executive Director of Eat Greater Des Moines says, "It's nice to be able to have another option to be able to support your community as well as get some great food for your family."

At the Downtown Farmers' Market, SNAP dollars are used every week to buy local foods. More than 150 farmers markets in Iowa have nutrition assistance options.

Kelly Foss the Director of the Downtown Farmers' Market says, "That just allows our entire community to support our farmers and our growers, and enjoy our community event and farmers markets across the state."

One of the common uses of national nutrition assistance programs is through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and about 40 percent of Iowa's 340,000 people on SNAP use it.

At the farmers market in Des Moines, EBT was about five percent of sales in June.

Alvarez thanks farmers for working with the program, "Those farmers and those markets taking an extra step, it's not something that they're required to do so we appreciate all of those farmers and markets that do go through the extra steps really so that they can really support more in their community."

Matt Russell with Coyote Run Farm in Lacota, Iowa says he's been happy to participate in EBT for the last 10 years, "It's not a huge part of our sales, but it's an important part of our sales."

Food benefits are intended to help Americans get a basic need, Russell says it has had an impact on his life.

"When I was in high school in the farm crisis of the 80s, I was on free lunch at school, and it made a real difference to my family." Russell says, "I just want to say to the folks out with the SNAP benefits, thank you for using that program for food security for your family and when you use it with my farm it's like a double thank you, I just really appreciate it."

Russell shows how the SNAP machine is used: you swipe a card, get a receipt, he says it is easy, "Takes no time and it's really helpful for us to be able to provide fresh local food for folks living here in Des Moines."

Russell adds the farm bill is an important connection from field to plate, especially when it comes to SNAP. Eighty percent of recipients live in the city, consequently, nutrition programs are about 80 percent of the farm bill.

He says, "We need urban folks who support that to also support our farms. And as farmers, we need to support that SNAP program."

People on SNAP can only use the dollars to buy grocery items like fruits, vegetables, or meat. One of the challenges is the local premium. But there are initiatives starting around Iowa to let SNAP recipients get more out of buying local. It's called Double-Up Food Bucks.

Aryn McLaren the Director of Iowa Healthiest State Initiative says, "We want to make sure they do have some extra dollars. that they can allocate just for fruits and vegetables. Iowa tends to rank poorly statewide in fruit and vegetable consumption. So the Healthiest State sees that as a top priority."

For now, at limited farmers markets, you can swipe your EBT card and get refundable token that doubles SNAP dollars up to $10, but it's only for local foods.

Alvarez says, "You end up with $20 dollars worth of food for half the price, and it's really a benefit for, not only those customers, but obviously that just helps support those local farmers and businesses as well.

The program has only been around for a couple of years, so the Downtown Farmers' Market doesn't have it implemented yet. McLaren says there are 12 farmers markets who do as well as three grocery stores.

But they want more to join on, "So we're supporting the health and well being of Iowans, we're supporting the local vendors and farmers that are selling here, and then also our economy."

Iowa Healthiest State earned a grant from the USDA to expand the Double-Up Food Bucks program. Matched with private funds, the total project now has nearly a million dollars.

If you want to see more about the Double-Up Food Bucks program or get it to your local farmers market, you can check out the Iowa Healthiest State website: http://www.iowahealthieststate.com/