Connecting Plant Vendors with SNAP Customers
Posted On: July 13, 2011
A guest post by Daniel Bowman Simon, founder of SNAPGardens.org
Most SNAP recipients do not know that they can garden with their benefits, and many farmers and market managers are likewise unaware – or haven’t focused any resources on promoting this choice. But nearly four decades ago, in 1973, Senator James Allen of Alabama championed an amendment to allow food-producing plants and seeds to be purchased with food stamps (renamed SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in 2008) The Senate passed the amendment after less than ten minutes of floor debate, and the amendment was included in the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 (aka the Farm Bill.) To this day, our nation has barely tapped the incredible growing power of SNAP.
As it happens, I first learned that food stamps could be used to buy food-producing plants and seeds at a farmers market in 2008 while I was on a cross-country roadtrip advocating that whoever moved into the White House should plant a vegetable garden. A woman approached me to ask how a garden at the White House would impact on the access and affordability of healthy fresh produce for people on food stamps. I said I thought it would inspire many people to garden by promoting beauty and self-reliance and improve the 21st century American stigma of gardening. She responded with, “Well I’m on food stamps, and I buy plants to grow my own food; but nobody else I know does. You should get the word out about it.” I’ll admit that at first I suspected she may have been getting away with using her benefits for ineligible purchases; but it turned out, upon further research, to be entirely legitimate.
I began asking people, from extension agents to policy wonks to community and backyard gardeners, whether they’d heard of any efforts to raise awareness of this choice, or, more to the point, whether they knew people using their benefits to grow at least some of their own food. And the responses were almost always either “That can’t be true, but if it is, people should know about it,” or “That can’t be true, but even if it is, people on food stamps don’t have the time or interest for gardening.” Once in a while I’d hear, “Yeah, we sell plants but hardly anyone buys them with food stamps.” And every so often, I’d meet a food stamp recipient who got very excited when I told them of this choice they have. I saw a few eyes bulge with a heartening combination of excitement and disbelief.
In 2011, thirty-eight years after the law changed to enable it, and three years after I first discovered it, I decided to launch SNAP Gardens. SNAP now serves 44,647,861 Americans, presenting an exciting challenge as to how to reach them all. I had to start somewhere. Farmers markets seemed like an obvious place, since plants sold at farmers markets tend to be healthy and, because farmers know what they’re doing, sold precisely when they’re best to plant. Farmers are also skilled in dispensing gardening advice, much the same way that they share recipes with customers. Some farmers sell seeds at market too, which offers another fantastic gardening opportunity. For people on SNAP, however, plants which are closer to a harvest stage will help them put food on the table that much sooner.
From a farmers perspective, plants are a great way to get revenue flowing into the farm operation early in the season, and people who buy even a plant or two often become loyal customers throughout the season and beyond. Think of plants as a living billboard for the farmer, growing in the customer’s windowsill, backyard, roof, or community garden.
This April, I sent an email to the Farmers Market Coalition listserv, announcing that I’d be creating posters to hang at farmers markets, and offered a link to an online form where markets could make a request. I was overwhelmed by the response. Seventy-six market organizations in 24 states, representing 128 markets, requested posters. The posters read “Grow Your Food Stamps — We welcome SNAP EBT for any food-producing plants and seeds. — For more information, visit www.SNAPgardens.org.” We offered to provide signage in other languages so long as the requesting organization could provide translation. We received multiple requests for Spanish, as well as requests for Hmong, Cherokee, Mandarin, and Russian, all of which we have been able to accommodate.
We’ve started to get great feedback from some of the markets, which we’ll share in a future issue. We’re busy working on fundraising to expand our efforts, and also work on some resource guides for farmers market managers, farmers, customers, and others, incorporating ideas from people we’ve met (in person or digitally) along the way. If you would like to learn more, or if you’ve got ideas for us, or can introduce us to people you know who can tell us their story of gardening with their SNAP benefits, please point your browser to www.SNAPgardens.org, and if you’d like a poster for your SNAP-welcoming farmers market, please go directly to www.SNAPgardens.org/posters.