Food stamps now go further at farmers' markets
Jill Mangaliman has reason to smile. The diverse low income communities she works with can now double their food stamp dollars with a new pilot farmer’s market program, “Fresh Bucks.”
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Access to healthy food is a number one priority, says Mangaliman. When the community group she works with, Got Green, polled people about what the green movement means to them, healthy food came out ahead of green jobs, green homes and public transportation. “It was obvious they wanted to provide food for their families. It was just they couldn’t afford it.”
Take Ann, a mother of two, who just bought peaches, berries, carrots and beans at the Columbia City Farmer’s Market with her new “Fresh Bucks” tokens. All she had to do was present her electronic benefit transfer or EBT food stamp card, spend ten dollars at the market, and receive an additional ten dollars in tokens for fruits and vegetables at no cost.
“It motivated me to come because normally it gets way too expensive to come here," she said. "And it’s a real treat for us as a family to come down and see our community and kind of interact and play with the kids while getting really good nutritious food and feeling good about it and not feeling, oh no, I over spent.”
The evolution of “Fresh Bucks” involved months and months of organizing and the program still has a long way to go before it’s permanent. It began when Got Green heard about the governor’s proposal in 2010 to cut $100,000 in administrative costs for the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program. The cut would have forfeited nearly $900,000 federal dollars.
“Thousands of families would have been affected, including the local farmers who, actually, this was their revenue as well,” Mangaliman explains. Got Green joined the Good Food Network, the Washington State Farmer’s Market Association and others to keep the program intact.
“What Got Green brought to the table is we had constituents, our leaders were directly impacted and for the first time we went to Olympia, lobbied our legislators, really got them to champion hearing the stories of how much it means for our families to go to farmer’s markets,” said Mangaliman.
The next step was to challenge the state’s eight million dollar contract with JP Morgan Chase Bank to administer EBT cards for low income families. Chase charges an ATM debit usage fee of 85 cents to EBT card users every time they access cash benefits.
“It added up to something like $100,000 a month,” explains Sage Wilson with Working Washington, a coalition of labor and community organizations fighting for economic justice and good jobs. “The mechanics of it are what’s the most striking in terms of economic inequality. It’s literally a situation where money is coming from some of the poorest people in the state, accessing their benefits and going into the coffers of one of the largest banks in the world.”
Working Washington joined Got Green and others in a series of actions throughout 2011 against the state’s contract with Chase, the bank’s 85 cent debit usage fee and a tax loophole originally given to Washington Mutual for interest on first mortgages.
Wilson says the legislature partially closed the tax loophole and the state renegotiated a new contract with Chase, effective May 2014, minus the 85 cent debit fee. “Both of these things weren’t issues of legality. They were issues of what we as a community and what we as a state are going to allow to be acceptable.”
It’s hard to pin down what leads to policy shifts and a “shift in the environment,” adds Wilson. “It’s hard to pin down that moment of change and yet we can see the before and after really clearly, that a moment of change did happen and it’s not a coincidence that it’s on these issues that Got Green and Working Washington were focused on.”
In a letter to Chase back in 2011 Got Green urged the bank to give back 10 percent of their $8 million state contract to expand access to affordable healthy food. In late summer of this year the bank, the Seattle Foundation and the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced a $40,000 grant for the “Fresh Bucks” pilot — 5 percent of Chase’s state contract.
Administered by the City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, “Fresh Bucks” extends through October at yearround farmer’s markets and through September at seasonal markets.
For Got Green organizer Tammy Nguyen, food justice and income inequality are issues she faces daily. “As a low income woman with kids I always have debate of what am I going to do this month, provide healthy food for my kids or pay the bills?” It’s a decision that terrifies her, Nguyen said.
At least for now, “Fresh Bucks” doubles her healthy food dollars and those of thousands of others. The Columbia City Farmers Market reported a 76 percent increase in EBT redemption in August while the Broadway Farmers Market is up 92 percent over the same period last year.