“April is the cruelest month,” says Birdhouse Farmers Market manager Kate Ruby. “All that promise sitting right in front of us.”
The 2020 farmers market season was a veritable wasteland, with a global pandemic disrupting an already fragile food system. Deeply rooted inequities were laid bare as millions of people experienced – many for the first time in their lives – unemployment and food insecurity.
Small, community markets running on lean margins and little manpower proved to be resilient bastions of the sustainable food system, quickly adapting to create online resources so consumers and their dollars could more easily access locally grown produce during a shutdown.
This year, farmers markets are gearing up for a busy, socially distanced season. “Birdhouse has always been committed to making fresh, healthy foods available to everyone,” Ruby says. “Not just the well-heeled foodies of the community.”
In that spirit, Ruby says the 15-year-old market has always accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, benefits and has participated in the Virginia Fresh Match program since its 2015 inception.
Fresh Match is a statewide network currently managed by a Roanoke-based nonprofit, The Local Environmental Agriculture Project. With Fresh Match, SNAP users who visit Virginia’s participating markets, grocers and corner stores can double the value of their nutrition incentives. That means for every $10 you spend on fresh fruits and veggies, you get another $10 of produce for free.
“It’s been a wild ride,” says program grant manager Sam Hedges. “In three years we have grown 200% in incentive programs and SNAP partners. We expect to double community retailers in the next three years.”
Like with any federally run program utilizing government dollars, Fresh Match must be implemented using specific guidelines, including securing certification and following proper reporting practices.
“It takes a determined commitment on the part of the farmers market,” Ruby says. “Many markets are too small or have other priorities.”
But more and more markets across the state are stepping up to the plate and signing on to participate in Fresh Match – according to Shalom Farms’ director of programs, Erin Lingo, there are five new area markets participating this year.
As the Virginia Fresh Match regional lead for Richmond and Petersburg, Shalom Farms assists markets and other community retailers in smoothly running the Fresh Match program.
“We can’t solve food access by ourselves,” Lingo says. “We believe farmers markets and local agriculture are key components of strengthening our local food system and food access. This program essentially gives us this cool opportunity to bring in farmers market managers who are able to learn from each other and co-create best practices.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Shalom Farms’ director of programs, Erin Lingo
As the world – and companies of every shape and size – started to shut down last spring, many people found themselves needing to utilize SNAP for the first time in their lives.
Statewide, Hedges says that there was a 100 to 200% increase in SNAP match users during the pandemic. Locally, Lingo notes that Birdhouse and Dorey Park farmers markets both doubled their SNAP match program last year, and Shalom’s mobile market more than tripled its SNAP match dollars.
“Getting SNAP for the first time is hard enough to get your head wrapped around,” Ruby says. “The other difficult thing on the customer side is finding out about it.”
Lingo says a huge part of running this program is outreach and communication. While it can easily contact farmers markets directly, getting in touch with individual SNAP users is not so simple.
“We send marketing materials to any place focusing on improving access to SNAP,” Lingo says. “We really want customers themselves to learn about the program so they can use their dollars to stretch out twice as far.”
In an ideal world, the farmers market model creates a platform for small business owners who in turn provide healthy, delicious food to consumers so that dollars stay within a community, and so on and so forth in a beautiful, uninterrupted cycle of sustainable growth.
Global pandemics tend to disrupt these cycles.
According to the World Bank, global food prices rose 20% between January 2020 and January 2021. Higher retail food prices combined with reduced incomes means, “More and more households are having to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption.”
People like Hedges, Lingo and Ruby are hoping to change this narrative, one market at a time.
“Last spring, we opened the Roanoke online farmers market two days after Governor Northam said markets were not an essential business,” Hedges says. “We all worked hard and quickly directly with farmers to keep food access going without disruption.”
Ruby, who will help launch Birdhouse's 15th season May 4, says SNAP match users can visit the market in-person, or use their dollars at the year-round virtual market. “My bottom line is I’m trying to build a local food system,” Ruby says. “We need everyone as involved as we possibly can.”
Learn about the Virginia Fresh Match Program online at vfm.leapforlocalfood.org.
These regional farmers markets will be offering Virginia Fresh Match benefits this season:
Dorey Park Farmers Market
Birdhouse Farmers Market
Petersburg River Street Market
RVA AG: Manakin, Powhatan and Goochland
Hopewell Farmers Market
Prince George Farmers Market
Virginia Free Farm in Lake Anna The Market at 25th
POP! Mobile Market