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News / Clark County News

Vancouver Farmers Market, Papa Murphy’s see impact after rollback in food stamps

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 7, 2024, 6:03am
5 Photos
A sandwich board outside the information booth at the Vancouver Farmers Market in 2020 highlights the benefits for EBT card users and members of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. After SNAP benefits received a boost in 2021, SNAP benefit use at the farmers market increased by 450 percent.
A sandwich board outside the information booth at the Vancouver Farmers Market in 2020 highlights the benefits for EBT card users and members of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. After SNAP benefits received a boost in 2021, SNAP benefit use at the farmers market increased by 450 percent. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

After a rollback in food stamps one year ago, people have had fewer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to spend at local businesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an especially hard time for people with low incomes. Unemployment skyrocketed and schools, where many students received breakfast and lunch, switched to online learning.

In response, the federal government gave food stamps a boost in April 2021, increasing SNAP benefits by about 15 percent. But last March, the government took back that increase.

Suddenly, Washington residents who had an average of $276 in SNAP benefits per month now had $168, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s a 39 percent reduction.

Papa Murphy’s, which is headquartered in Vancouver, reported a loss in SNAP-benefit (also referred to as Electronic Benefits Transfer) customers affected sales.

“Obviously, the fact that EBT is going down and the fact that the government is putting less resources toward it doesn’t help us. So we need to figure out a way to make it up,” Papa Murphy’s CEO Eric Lefebvre said in an investor call last month.

Clark County Food Bank, FISH and school food pantries all noticed an increase in people seeking food after the March rollback. At Clark College, 70 percent more Clark students used the college’s food pantry in November 2023 compared with November 2022, according to the college.

FISH, a food pantry in downtown Vancouver, has been struggling to keep up with demand.

“We’ve gained 40 to 50 families every day since those cuts were made,” James Fitzgerald, executive director of FISH, said in an interview in November while serving food to low-income seniors.

People using SNAP benefits often go to the Vancouver Farmers Market because they can get their benefits matched, dollar for dollar, for produce. The Vancouver Farmers Market is the second-largest distributor of SNAP and SNAP Market Match out of 135 farmers markets in Washington.

From 2019 to 2021, SNAP usage increased by 450 percent at the market, according to Stephanie Clark, director of partnerships and programs.

But last year, the Washington State Department of Health had to lower the cap from $40 to $25 because it was running out of funds. This change along with the cut to SNAP benefits has had a major impact on SNAP customers, Clark said.

SNAP shoppers have told Clark it’s been more difficult to feed their families and afford fresh foods. Even with a 30 percent decrease in distribution last year, the market’s number of transactions only decreased by 12 percent, Clark said. The redemption rate of SNAP benefits is nearly 100 percent, meaning shoppers are using their SNAP benefits at the market right away, rather than saving them.

“They’re coming in almost the same amount of numbers, and they’re spending all the money they’re getting as soon as they get it,” Clark said. “People are not leaving money on the table, and they’re still coming to the market even though they’re getting less bang for their buck.”

This exemplifies how important SNAP benefits are in Clark County, where there is such a high need that SNAP benefit use at the market is outpacing other parts of the state, she said. To supplement for the loss of food stamps, the farmers market has been using grants to buy food from farmers and giving it away to people who need it through partnerships with community organizations, she said.

“There are people who make these decisions, and then they never get to see the effects of people at the market and on the street,” Clark said. “I think it just underlines how important these things are and what the need is like in our community.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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