Douglas County launches regional effort to double SNAP benefits at farmers markets

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence Farmers' Market: Best Fresh Produce, Best of Lawrence 2016

Starting Saturday, those using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at Lawrence farmers markets can pay $25 and receive $50 worth of produce.

With the help of a federal grant, the Douglas County Sustainability Department is launching this week a new match program, “Double Up Food Bucks,” at the Lawrence Farmers Market, Cottin’s Hardware Market and farmers markets in Emporia, Pittsburg, Topeka, Manhattan, Leavenworth, Perry-Lecompton and Allen County. Those with SNAP benefits can go to the market booths at the locations, pay $25 and receive $50 worth of tokens to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Eileen Horn, the county’s sustainability coordinator, said so far there’s been a “healthy skepticism” about the program.

Farmers markets in Lawrence

• Cottin’s Hardware Market, 1832 Massachusetts St., Thursdays, 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

• Lawrence Farmers Market, 824 New Hampshire St., Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

• Tuesday Lawrence Farmers Market, 707 Vermont St., 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” she said. “Basically, they can turn $25 into $50 to spend at the market. It feels good to have families be able to afford healthy food.”

In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $2.9 million for the program to a coalition in Kansas and Missouri. The Douglas County Sustainability Department is a subcontractor that’s tasked with using $218,000 in grant money — $471,000 total with matching funds — to oversee the program in eastern Kansas over the next three years.

The grant funding will be used to provide the match at farmers markets, for marketing and to bring on a full-time position to coordinate it all.

The city, county, community foundations and other groups in the eastern half of Kansas provided the matching funds.

Besides being a benefit to those using SNAP, the program will also bring new customers to farmers markets, Horn said, which now compete with large grocery stores that provide locally grown foods.

“It brings a whole new customer base to farmers markets, and farmers markets in the state are struggling because grocery stores have added natural food sections and local foods to the mix,” Horn said. “The farmers market becomes not the only place you can get that.”

Olivia Taylor-Puckett, manager of the Lawrence Farmers Market, said in a news release it was a “win-win.”

“Low-income families can afford to eat healthy foods, and our farmers gain new customers and generate additional revenue,” she said.

In 2014, the county started a similar “Market Match” program at the Lawrence Farmers Market and Cottin’s Hardware Market. Last year, Horn led its expansion to Pittsburg, Iola, Atchison and Manhattan. There are a total of 11 markets participating this year, and it’s set to grow to 18 in 2017.

There are plans to establish the match program at rural grocery stores in eastern Kansas. Horn also wants to eventually reach out to Wichita, a city that contends with the “urban food desert phenomenon,” Horn said. Wichita has six markets that could offer the program.

Douglas County is taking the lead on organizing the program in other Kansas counties, Horn said, because Douglas County leaders “understand the local food system boundary doesn’t just stop at the county boundary.”

“When they think about our local food economy, they recognize that it’s the eaters outside of the county that eat at our restaurants, and it’s the farmers outside of Douglas County that produce and sell to our grocery stores and restaurants,” Horn said. “So food access issues, increasing access to healthy food and supporting farmers can’t just be a county level initiative — it has to be regional.”