Suliman Abdullah, Leonard Watson, and Taboris Robinson work at DC Urban Greens Ely Place SE stand. Photo by Christen Hill Ely Place SE stand. Photo by Christen Hill
Suliman Abdullah, Leonard Watson, and Taboris Robinson work at DC Urban Greens Ely Place SE stand. Photo by Christen Hill Ely Place SE stand. Photo by Christen Hill

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For years, the government has offered incentives to help poor Washingtonians buy healthier foods. People receiving SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, can shop at many local farmers markets and even double a portion of their benefits through various non-profit and District matching programs. The produce is often fresher, healthier, and locally grown.

But despite the offer of more food, many low-income shoppers are not biting. The District’s SNAP budget was more than $224 million in 2015, but city recipients redeemed only $66,129 at farmers markets that year. And the D.C. numbers tell a story playing out around the country. Nationwide, roughly $1 of every $3,500 in SNAP was spent at a farmers market in 2015. 

For many low-income residents, trekking to a farmers market for extra produce costs too much in both time and transportation to make the trip worthwhile. Getting to well-stocked farmers markets often requires travelling to distant, wealthier neighborhoods. Others don’t know that the benefit exists. 

“It’s pretty challenging. It’s expensive and stressful,” says Kim Reid, a D.C. SNAP recipient and a mother of five, when asked about buying groceries. She says her monthly SNAP allotment is just under $600. “I spend that probably in a two-week time period. I get them on the 8th and they’re gone by the 23rd.” 

If Reid were to take her SNAP debit card to certain farmers markets in the District, a manager could swipe her card for $10 and hand her $20 in tokens to spend within the market. FRESHFARM Markets, which has 10 locations in the District, offers this option. The organization fundraises to support the matching dollars and says it has given out more than $350,000 to customers since it began the program in 2009. 

Alternatively, Reid could take advantage of a District program called Produce Plus, which issues $5 checks that shoppers can use like cash at certain markets. Patrons can collect $10 worth of checks twice a week, meaning they have to go shopping two separate times to collect the full $20 benefit. (More successful than the federal effort, Produce Plus issued over $350,000 in redeemed checks in 2015 alone.)

Reid could also combine the two programs. If she went shopping at farmers markets three separate times each week, she could increase her benefit allotment by $120 a month.

But a few obstacles stand in her way. First, she had never heard of the program that allows her to use her SNAP benefits at farmers markets. “When you go to apply, they don’t bring up the farmers market,” she says. Second, her days are packed with a full-time job as a teaching assistant at a D.C. charter school and as a single mother to her five children. Third, at the time of this interview she didn’t have a car. When asked about transporting groceries, she said, “Oh my God, it’s the worst. You have to have a car.”

Without one, she shopped at the Safeway where “riders”—not taxis, not Ubers, but rather local people with cars who know that shoppers like Reid need a ride—offered her low-cost transportation. 

Reid tries to do all her grocery shopping in one or two trips per month. “Instead of getting fresh produce, I get canned goods because they’re cheaper,” she says. “We eat a lot of pasta, which is not healthy. One meal, spaghetti, is $13. If I wanted to do fruits and vegetables, it’s expensive and it doesn’t last long,” she says. 

The idea to offer SNAP recipients incentive money to shop at farmers markets dates back nearly a decade, when lawmakers provided for a pilot program within the the 2008 Farm Bill. In that first year, D.C. residents on SNAP redeemed a grand total of $805 at farmers markets. The program has grown steadily in D.C. since then. Last year’s redemption total of $73,202 in the District represented an 8,993 percent increase from the program’s humble start. Yet it still hasn’t reached families like Reid’s, and operates at a fraction of its capacity.

“Farmers markets are by design not open every day, all day,” says Yuki Kato, an associate professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Sociology who researches food and health in urban contexts. “People with work hours that are not flexible will find it difficult to access these markets, especially if they are not anywhere near their home or work.”

Kirsten Solomon, a SNAP recipient who frequents a farmers market near the Brookland Metro stop, has been able to find a way to do much of her shopping at farmers markets. “I learned about farmers market bonus bucks when I was pregnant,” says Solomon. (“Bonus Bucks” is the name of an organization called Community Foodworks’ matching program, and is available at the market Solomon uses.) She is a health food enthusiast and lives within walking distance of the market. Still, her mother usually gives her a ride to pick up groceries so she doesn’t have struggle to carry everything. 

Creating comparable options in some other parts of the city has proven a challenge. 

Dreaming Out Loud, an urban farming nonprofit, opened full-on markets—one in Northeast and one in Southwest D.C.—with the vision of bringing fresh produce to neighborhoods with few options. They invited regional farmers to come and sell their produce so that neighborhood customers could choose between multiple vendors.

But within a few years, founder Chris Bradshaw had to close the two markets because of the lack of business. Customers could use their SNAP cards at his market, but he had no funding for a matching dollars program. And while he was able to dispense checks through the District’s Produce Plus program, some customers would take their checks and use them elsewhere.

The vendors he recruited from rural areas in surrounding states weren’t able to sell enough to make the journey worth it. “A lot of farmers are poor too,” says Bradshaw. “It’s trying to do both but ends up not helping either one, really. I know farmers who are low income and get SNAP themselves.”

Bradshaw’s organization has recalibrated with a new model, recently acquiring two acres of land at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast to farm. They plan to be a farmers market, but also a meeting place where area restaurants can order produce from local farmers in bulk. By doing this, they hope to supplement their income so that they don’t rely solely on customer transactions, government-funded or not.

“East of the river, the markets are smaller” says Bradshaw. “The markets have less disposable income and fewer vendors, and people feel less like they want to spend their money here,” he says.

Compare that to one of the city’s most well-known markets in Dupont Circle. It’s a large and bustling market open on Sundays year-round. Shoppers can choose from artisanal bread and a variety of meats, as well as exotic flowers. The produce collection includes strawberries, peaches, apples, and many other items, depending on the season. It’s a family-friendly event with food, rather than a food center where shoppers have a main objective of buying groceries. This market accepts SNAP redemptions, but getting there may require a long trip by bus and train.

DC Urban Greens, an urban farming organization in Southeast, has found success running farms and small farm stands. The group sells produce they grow on their two urban farms—one at 3779 Ely Place SE and another at 1812 Erie Street SE—and hires residents from the neighborhoods to tend the crops, run their stands, and educate customers on how to use government benefits to get fresh food. They operate a farm stand in front of Ward 7’s Fort Dupont Ice Arena, which is in front of the Ely Place farm. 

Their stands are located on-site near their farms, and they stock a limited assortment of seasonal vegetables. Customers can choose from eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, greens, and a few other items in high summer, and can utilize D.C.’s Produce Plus program to expand their shopping budgets. 

On an afternoon in August at DC Urban Greens’ Ely Place SE location, the farm is in full bloom. The expanse of ripe fruits and vegetables is an unexpected summertime oasis in dense D.C. The 20-or-so shoppers there are chatting with each other, searching for the perfect greens, and getting ready to cook big meals—and about half of them are senior citizens. The other half of the customers do not appear to be elderly, but neither are most of them parents with little kids in tow. The same trend held true on summer visits to the H Street NE farmers market: Senior citizens were out in force to use their benefits. 

“There has been a strong presumption that poor people do not know how to eat healthy even if they had money, which continues to fund studies that focus on educating the poor, especially poor communities of color,” says Kato. “I find this to be a somewhat misguided approach, and condescending at the least, as people oftentimes know that eating food out or buying dinner at fast food chains is not healthy.”  

As Solomon, who lives near the Brookland market puts it, “I rarely buy frozen produce. I’m trying to get the closest to freshness.” 

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