A first trip to the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers' Market can be overwhelming, especially to a shopper on a budget.
Table upon table inside the old factory's halls are piled with golden apples, crispy leeks, sweet potatoes sprinkled with fresh mud. Vendors stand behind hundreds of miniature sample cups — jams from every corner of the Ocean State. Raspberry, strawberry, apple cinnamon, carrot cake and cream. The milk, the farmers say, is "Rhody fresh." The cheese is stinky, but sweet.
But now, thanks to continued efforts by Farm Fresh Rhode Island and state advocacy groups, even those on the tightest of budgets can "dig in."
Farm Fresh Rhode Island first began accepting Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — formerly known as food stamps — at local farmers' markets in 2007. This summer, the organization partnered with the Wholesome Wave Foundation to start the Bonus Bucks program, producing remarkable results, said Christie Moulton, outreach director at Farm Fresh.
Since early 2009, the use of SNAP benefits at Rhode Island farmers' markets has soared, she said. Increases are thanks in part to the Bonus Bucks program, an incentive program offering up to $10 in rewards for shopping at local markets, she said.
Moulton stands at a table in the entryway of the Pawtucket market on Saturday mornings, swiping shoppers' debit, credit and SNAP benefit cards. She hands out golden coins in exchange for payment. Because these coins are used as currency at the market, the use of food assistance benefits is largely indistinguishable from credit or debit purchases.
The Pawtucket Market sees anywhere between about $200 to $600 in SNAP sales each week, said Jenn Baumstein '08, food systems coordinator at Farm Fresh. This represents between about $100 and $300 in Bonus Bucks, she said.
The original Bonus Bucks funding ran out in October of this year. But with a $5,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, Farm Fresh Rhode Island was able to extend the program to the wintertime farmers' market. Last week, the organization received another $1,500 in funding from the Frederick C. Tanner Memorial Fund, Baumstein said.
"We're constantly looking for more funding for the Bonus Bucks program," she said.
Rhode Island farmers' markets saw over $32,000 in SNAP sales in 2009, up from just under $3,000 the year before, according to data from the Farm Fresh Web site.
An increase in SNAP usage at farmers' markets corresponds to a statewide expansion of the benefits program. In January 2009, about 93,600 individuals and 46,700 households were receiving SNAP benefits, according to Nancy Pellegrino, a program administrator at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services. By January, those numbers had jumped to about 133,200 individuals and 69,200 households — a 40 to 50 percent increase in both categories.
Tammie Watson, chef and owner of Mazie's Organic Catering, said she accepted more SNAP benefits than any other form of payment at summer farmers' markets this year, though she said that number has fallen off during the winter months.
Incentive programs at farmers' markets have more than one function, Moulton said. First, incentives are aimed at increasing the availability of produce as opposed to processed or packaged foods. And secondly, incentives encourage buying local produce, she said.
"The Bonus Bucks program allows people to stretch their food budgets farther and still provide healthy foods for their family … Farmers, after all, have to make a buck too," a Feb. 2 blog post on the Farm Fresh Web site reads.
"The doubling of the value of the first $20 was a big incentive to buy local at farmers' markets," Jon Mitchell, a Providence resident who recently began receiving SNAP benefits, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "It's fantastic to be able to use SNAP at farmers' markets, and it's just that much better for the Rhode Island food economy."