Despite being closed for six weeks during the pandemic and seeing about a quarter of its usual visitors, the Vancouver Farmers Market saw more customers using food benefits.
Those participating in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, called Basic Food in Washington, can use their Electronic Benefits Transfer card to pay for food at the downtown market.
This year comes with the added incentive of a $20 match on fresh fruits and vegetables through a program called SNAP Market Match. Pre-ordering online and picking up orders at the Historic Slocum House adds another $10 discount sponsored by the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, meaning those using EBT cards can get $40 of produce for $10.
In previous seasons, what’s known as Fresh Match provided a $5 match on fresh fruits and veggies.
During the market’s regular season, which ended Nov. 1, the Vancouver Farmers Market processed $34,362 in SNAP transactions and gave out $29,138 in matching funds. Additionally, the online market processed $4,942 in SNAP transactions and gave out $3,082 in matching funds and discounts. By comparison, last year there were $30,850 in SNAP transactions and $8,153 in matching funds through what was known as Fresh Match.
“It’s pretty clear we’re not seeing a giant increase in SNAP transactions, just for fruits and veggies,” said Stephanie Haynes, the market’s partnerships and programs manager.
SNAP Market Match and the online market discount are still available during the Fall Farmers Market, which runs Saturdays through Dec. 19.
More than 100 farmers markets and food stands in 29 counties across the state participate in SNAP Market Match. Victor Andino, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said the match amount is set by the market but is at least $10 per customer per day.
Due to additional federal funding in 2021, markets will offer a $40 match on fruits and vegetables, Andino said.
The state Department of Health received $4.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support the match program. The grant, which lasts through 2023, requires the state to invest an additional $4.8 million in state, local or private dollars.
It’s meant to encourage food benefit recipients to buy fresh produce at local markets. Besides the financial incentives, Haynes said another driver of increased SNAP transactions this season could be that more people are using food benefits due to the economic downturn.
The number of people using SNAP or the state Food Assistance Program has gone up since the pandemic started and people lost employment. August saw a peak of 958,585 people statewide and 61,458 in Clark County using public assistance programs to supplement their grocery costs. For the county, it was a nearly 24-percent increase in clients from February.
Haynes said the market also appeared to serve a greater number of seniors and Women Infants and Children clients through the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Qualifying households can get between $28 and $84 in checks to spend at farmers markets and farm stands.
Jennifer Dickison, WIC coordinator with SeaMar Community Health Centers, said even though the number of checks is limited the Vancouver WIC office typically doesn’t run out because interest in the long-standing program has declined over the years. About 61 percent of Vancouver checks were redeemed last year.
However, she said, “This year there was a bit of an uptick.”
Redemption data won’t be available until spring. Dickison said families that tap into both SNAP Market Match and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program can get a lot of produce at the Vancouver Farmers Market for not a lot of money.
Haynes said the farmers market is working on increasing accessibility and shifting attitudes around the farmers market being expensive.
“It’s so surprising to me that people have this perception that farmers markets are fancy and not for everyone,” she said.
Information about using food benefits at the farmers market has mainly been pushed through social media. In 2021, Haynes aims to bring back programming such as SNAP tours where customers using SNAP are shown around to make them comfortable and confident in spending their benefits at the farmers market.