In a 2011 news report, of the 233,000 residents of McLennan County’s, 66,000 qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or “food stamps.” Of those who were eligible, less than half actually participated. That’s more than 33,000 people who shouldn’t suffer from food insecurity, but do. Why?
Is it the stigma? Or, the fact that parts of Waco and McLennan County suffer from the phenomenon of food desserts*? In McLennan County, simply having SNAP isn’t the battle; having a place to use it is — especially if that place provides locally grown produce and healthful food for growing families.
Located in an area where 74.4% of residents have low access to food, The Waco (Texas) Downtown Farmers Market (WDFM) is pushing for SNAP acceptance at its weekly market held each Saturday. The market, which started in November 2011, provides locally grown produce, farm-raised meat, fresh eggs, and organic cuisine to market-goers numbering from 500 to 2,000 each weekend.
The WDFM has partnered with the Texas Hunger Initiative, the Food Planning Task Force of McLennan County, Urban Gardening Coalition, the McLennan County Hunger Coalition, and the World Hunger Relief Farm to make the program a reality.
Bethel Erickson-Bruce, Market Manager for the WDFM comments, “By accepting SNAP at Market, we hope to draw in greater participation from neighborhoods all throughout Waco – expanding the capability of all people to purchase fresh, locally grown food.” She adds, “We are also excited about the possibility of having people use their government benefits to vote with their food dollars and support local agriculture and the local economy.”
The ever-present problem of convenience store cuisine primarily obtained in Food Deserts may be uprooted if SNAP is an option where vegetables, fruits and nutritious food options are easily accessible. The New York Times reported that the University of Washington found in 2007 that “higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers.” High-calorie/energy-dense food cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-calorie/nutritious options. The survey also showed that healthful options had a tendency to increase in price, while high-caloric snack foods tended to become more of a bargain, actually dropping in price by 1.8 percent over the length of the study.
Whether federal benefits will be used at the Market remains to be seen, but organizers hope that if the service is out there, local residents will respond. The main goal is to provide and offer locally grown produce to residents who normally are not able to purchase fresh vegetables due to lack of availability or price.
The group is in the initial stages of determining which system they would like to set up for accepting food stamps. Many markets across the country use a wooden token system where shoppers exchange SNAP benefits or debit-card dollars for a shopper-friendly token used like cash at the market. Unused tokens can be credited back to the shoppers accounts or easily used next time they attend the market. The team’s task force meets regularly to work on and discuss funding possibilities for initial costs, client outreach, vendor outreach, and training volunteers to operate the new system. Main points to consider are ease of use, and non-discriminatory methods for using the benefits. The group hopes that a dual SNAP/Debit machine will be an option to eliminate any hesitance that may accompany the use of SNAP at the market.
The seeds are planted, and now it’s only a matter of time before accepting SNAP at the WDFM becomes a reality. If you would like to know more about how you can help implement the system and help residents obtain healthful food options while supporting local agriculture, visit the market this Saturday and chat with Bethel and the UGC volunteers at the Urban Gardening Coalition booth about ways you can help spread the word. You may also visit them online at www.wacodowntownfarmersmarket.com or http://hotugc.org.
Helpful hints: Bring cash, for now, and a recyclable bag if you have one (or two) to hold your purchases.
*What is a Food Desert? According to the USDA:
While there are many ways to define a food desert, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To qualify as low-income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract’s population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/documentation.html
To find where the Food Deserts are in our area, state or nation, visit http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html