Market Managers Fight for Community Food Access with Nutrition Incentive Programs

By: Ethel Recinos       Posted On: August 5, 2020

Ever since Cheryl Whilby became the Market Manager of Schenectady Greenmarket, her dream has been to increase the purchasing power for customers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). COVID-19 added urgency to this mission and united the Schenectady, New York community to find a solution to the challenge of keeping good food accessible to vulnerable community members in the height of a global pandemic.

“It was really nice to see so many community members and folks committed to food access work in Schenectady coming together to implement nutrition incentive programs as soon as possible. Especially because during COVID, folks need access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Whilby.

Getting people to use their SNAP benefits at the farmers market instead of the grocery is not an easy task. Farmers markets reputation of being expensive, combined with the stigma of using SNAP benefits creates an instant social barrier. 

“Growing up in a predominantly Black, low income neighborhood, no one in my community ever shopped at the farmers market because it was viewed as a space for wealthier people and we knew the price tag would be more than we could afford,” added Whilby. “We also knew that the produce at the market was much better quality than what we’d find in the grocery store.”

Now, Whilby has used her role as market manager to implement food justice principles and ensure customers feel comfortable utilizing SNAP benefits at Schenectady Greenmarket. 

“We believe that everyone in our community should have access to high quality, fresh, and local food. We want to make sure we’re doing our best to make this food accessible to our communities of color who are disproportionately more likely to be food insecure. This is why we participate and offer different incentive programs at our market so our low income communities can afford quality produce, meat, and eggs and have the ability to provide for their families,” Whilby said.

Now, Schenectady Greenmarket offers three nutrition incentive programs to their shoppers. Their most recent nutrition incentive program, Field & Fork Network’s Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) was implemented on July 5. The DUFB incentive program matches SNAP purchases using $2 tokens up to $20. The response to the program was overwhelming; the market completely ran out of incentive tokens on that same day despite limiting their outreach to virtual marketing.

In addition to an increase in both customers using SNAP and nutrition incentives sales, the Schenectady Greenmarket has also experienced an increase in overall sales. Whilby attributes this to the market’s open air concept and dedication to following safety guidelines, making people feel more comfortable than being in an enclosed grocery store. She also credits shoppers looking for an element of traceability and connection with their food.

“Just knowing the farmer that is bringing the fruits and vegetables to you and your family is really important right now,” Whilby explained. “At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of folks were scared of the obstruction of our food chain and people started turning to their local farmers to provide for their families.”

This farmers market season has challenged market operators like Whilby in ways they had never expected: from the uncertainty of being able to open the Schenectady Greenmarket at all, to keeping in accordance with new, fast-changing health guidelines and regulations, to being vigilant that customers and vendors are staying safe. And yet, it has also brought together the Schenectady community and has evolved into another reminder of the vital importance of farmers, farmers markets, nutrition incentive programs, and dedicated market managers.