One of the biggest challenges of the food movement today is promoting equity within the production and distribution systems. By and large it’s the small farmers, not big agribusiness, who are growing the healthiest food in the most sustainable ways. But their work is hard, their profits slim, and they receive substantially less government assistance than large commodity crop farmers. Many would argue that they deserve a premium price for a premium product. On the other hand, those concerned with food justice are working hard to ensure that the healthiest produce is affordable for low-income people, for whom poor nutrition is an endemic problem. Despite this obvious need, the Farm Bill passed by the Senate yesterday includes an $8 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).
This week’s video visits Brandon Pugh, an organic small farmer outside Memphis who believes that making good food affordable requires work by government programs, as well as a sea change in how we value what we eat. The contribution that follows by Dick Brenner of the Portland Farmers Market association, describes their efforts to bolster the SNAP program in the Portland region through private giving and regional collaboration. Against a backdrop of industrial farming and increasing economic disparity, it would seem that both Pugh and Brenner’s work has never been more important.
Portland Region Farmers Markets Pull Together
By Dick Brenner
Portland Farmers Market (PFM) operates eight markets in Portland, Oregon. Among its purposes is to make fresh, local food available to all residents of the region. PFM’s flagship market in downtown Portland accommodates 15,000 to 20,000 shoppers during the height of berry season with as many as 140 vendors. The flagship market serves a relatively affluent resident and visitor market.
PFM’s neighborhood markets are quite different. They are smaller and more intimate and principally serve residents within a mile. Shoppers are less affluent; there are higher percentages of lower income people. These markets are the primary targets of PFM’s campaign to make fresh, local food available to low-income shoppers.
All PFM markets accept SNAP benefits (food stamps). But several years ago, loyal and highly-motivated supporters of two PFM neighborhood markets began raising funds to provide a cash incentive to lure SNAP shoppers to the markets. Tracking showed the five-dollar match for the first five dollars of SNAP benefits spent at the markets was attracting new SNAP shoppers. Success, of course, meant that the people who were raising the funds had to raise more money every year.
PFM watched these nascent nutrition incentive programs closely, for two reasons. Fresh Exchange was bringing fresh, local food to many more low-income shoppers. And the influx of SNAP shoppers was bringing new customers to the neighborhood markets, helping farmers, other vendors, and the neighborhood markets themselves to achieve viability. PFM wanted to build existing Fresh Exchange programs and extend Fresh Exchange to other neighborhood markets.
Like most farmers markets, PFM is recognized as a business association, a 501(c)(6) under federal tax laws. PFM can accept contributions, but they are not automatically tax deductible. PFM thought it could interest funders in an expanded Fresh Exchange program, but only if contributions were tax deductible. So, PFM established the “Farmers Market Fund” (FMF) “to improve access by underserved communities to fresh food grown by local farmers and provide opportunities to learn about the benefits of fresh, local food.“
FMF received its IRS 501(c)(3) in the winter of 2012 and immediately launched fundraising for Fresh Exchange. FMF used its first significant grant to inform seniors and low-income populations how to access, purchase and cook fresh food. In early 2013, FMF conducted research to gauge perceptions and experiences that low-income families and seniors have about shopping at farmers markets. Using these results, FMF prepared a guide that shows low-income shoppers where the markets are on a map, how to get to them, how to shop for best value and tips on cooking with fresh fruit and vegetables. Numerous community organizations distributed the guides to their clients.
Modest first-year fundraising success convinced FMF and PFM to expand Fresh Exchange to all four of its neighborhood markets. Simultaneously, they began discussions with other, non-PFM markets in the greater region to share experience and ideas about improvement of nutrition incentive programs and the ever-present challenge of raising money for more SNAP matches. These discussions led fourteen markets to establish a collaborative to build the region’s programs and explore other ways to bring fresh, local food to low income people.
The collaborative aims to increase the over-all impact of incentive programs, improve technology to make it easier for shoppers and markets to complete transactions, stabilize program funding and develop new region-wide strategies for making fresh food more accessible. Already, the collaborative has undertaken combined fundraising efforts and established protocols for collection and analysis of market data, such as SNAP shopper counts and use of incentives. As the collaboration grows, the markets expect to expand the use of new technology in transactions; establish an on-line learning community; explore the development of a common currency for SNAP shoppers, develop educational materials on the health benefits of healthy food for distribution to low-income populations and explore and implement methods other than cash incentives, such as mobile markets, to improve low-income access to local food.
FMF and the markets that comprise the collaborative are confident these efforts will bring new low-income shoppers into the region’s farmers markets.
Learn more about Portland Farmers Markets at http://www.portlandfarmersmarket.org/
Check out Delta Sol Farm at http://deltasolfarm.com/