Farmers market food stamps: More beet for your buck

A new city program means Seattleites on food stamps can stretch their dollars a lot further at farmers' markets.
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Councilmember Richard Conlin

A new city program means Seattleites on food stamps can stretch their dollars a lot further at farmers' markets.

Like many mothers, Tammy Nguyen doesn’t like saying no to her children, especially when they ask for something healthy. (Editor's Note: Nguyen is of no relation to the author.) Sometimes, she didn’t have a choice. A single mother of two children, buying fresh produce just wasn’t within her budget.

Now, with new city-provided matching funds for food stamps (EBT) at farmers' markets, she doesn’t have to.

Last Wednesday, the city officially launched Fresh Bucks, a fund that matches food stamp benefits used to purchase fresh food at Seattle farmers’ markets up to $10. Sponsored by the city of Seattle in partnership with JP Morgan Chase and the Seattle Foundation, Fresh Bucks helps low-income people throughout Seattle buy fresh produce. Those who qualify for EBT can receive a $10 match, per visit, per site, at each of the 15 farmers’ markets and two P-Patch market stands in Seattle.

“When you’re poor, cost is a barrier to eating healthy food,” City Councilmember Richard Conlin said at the launch. “As a city, we have a vision that we can create and support win-win programs like Fresh Bucks and not only use that to support low-income consumers, but also local farmers and those who are growing food. … The goal is to support local farmers and to rebuild our regional food system, so that it really serves everybody.”

After a successful privately-funded pilot program last year brought more than 900 new shoppers to farmers’ markets, the city brought the program back for an encore — this time with some of its own funds. In June, the Seattle City Council passed a budget amendment to add $50,000 to the Office of Sustainability and Environment’s budget for the Fresh Bucks program. Conlin, who sponsored the budget amendment, said Wednesday the funds were a lucky byproduct of a successful financial year for the city that included unexpected revenue from sales and business taxes.

Despite good fortune with this year's budget, it’s unclear as of now whether Fresh Bucks will return next year. That worries Nguyen, who in addition to being a mom, is a primary organizer for Got Green, the organization that brought the Fresh Bucks idea to the city. But for now, the only thing she and Got Green can do is to make this year’s round of Fresh Bucks so successful that the city won’t be able to say no next year. That means getting the word out.

“There are still a lot of community members that do not know about Fresh Bucks,” Nguyen said. “We need a way to talk to our community and educate them about what Fresh Bucks is.”

Robert Cruickshank, Mayor Mike McGinn's senior communications adviser, said he hopes the city can keep Fresh Bucks in the future. But he also knows that budgetary challenges lie ahead, with many other programs also competing for funding.

“This economy, while it’s doing a lot better, we’re not totally out of the woods yet and local budget is not totally out of the woods either,” he said. “So it’s just a question of making sure that all of our priorities, from public safety to other health and human services, are being funded as well.”

For at least one more year, Nguyen, whose kids stood by her, munching berries at Wednesday's announcement, won't have to say no to fresh produce. Neither will the hundreds of other parents who take advantage of Fresh Bucks at Seattle-area farmers' markets. Nguyen hopes she doesn’t have to say it next year too, but can she know for sure how things will work out?



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