By Pat James
For the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Published June 24, 2023
This past Tuesday was one of those days at the Grow Food Northampton (GFN) Tuesday Market farmers market when you wanted to linger even when your shopping is done. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade, the gentle guitar music of Alvaro Olvera Sanchez wafted over the plaza behind Thornes. Kids and adults enjoyed pizza from Tellus & the Satellite Bar, or savored Crooked Stick popsicles before they melted.
The Tuesday Market tent bustled as folks lined up with EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards in hand to use their SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to shop. I talked with a few of them to ask why they choose to use their SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits at the farmers market. I also wanted to get their thoughts on recent threats by politicians to reduce SNAP benefits and increase work requirements for recipients as the U.S. Farm Bill comes up for funding in 2023.
Olive is a student who lives in South Hadley and is working in Northampton for the summer. “I love the social aspects of the market,” they said, adding, “I know folks think farmers markets are a little ‘bougie,’ but this is near my work, and because of the doubling of SNAP benefits here, I can get all the veggies I need for the week.” Olive pointed out that using SNAP in grocery stores means getting “shelf-stable but less healthy foods,” adding, “I can’t really afford to shop at most of the grocery stores for organic produce. Eating healthy can be challenging if you’re on SNAP.”
They’re right. Most of the Farm Bill’s huge subsidies for farmers goes to giant agribusinesses to produce highly processed foods that drive diet-related diseases such as diabetes. Many SNAP users in the US have easy access to processed foods, but the availability of fresh organic food is limited or absent. This is often referred to as “food deserts,” but advocates for access to healthy food have relabeled this as food apartheid. According to Regeneration.org, “Food apartheid is a system that divides those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who have been denied that access due to systemic injustice.”
Another shopper who preferred to remain anonymous agreed with that definition. She said, “I grow a lot of my own food at the GFN organic Community Garden in Florence. I have a lot of dietary restrictions so it’s important to have access to food without a lot of additives.” When asked about threats to cut SNAP and require work, she said that for her, “this is traumatizing as a full-time student who is also on disability. It feels inhumane that we are constantly facing threats to accessing healthy food. Besides, I bet most of the people on SNAP already work.”
In fact, over the course of a recent 24-month study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “87 percent of households (using SNAP benefits) with children and a non-disabled adult” worked, despite challenges of poor access to transportation and child care.
“I am on the Northampton Survival Center Advisory Board,” said another shopper who wished to speak anonymously. “With SNAP and the match I get here at the Tuesday Market, I get a quality of food I can’t afford anywhere else. And since I bike here, I get another token for that,” she added. “I wouldn’t mind having a work requirement,” she said, “but only if we can get a living wage that stays ahead of inflation. Actually, I think the real issue is that 40% of the food produced in this country is wasted, and sometimes the government pays farmers to destroy food. It doesn’t make sense!”
She’s correct. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up to 40% of the food produced in the US is wasted before it ever gets to a grocery bag, much of it ending up in landfills where it produces methane that contributes to the climate crisis.
Friends Yasira Castillo and Diane Lawson were shopping together. Yasira’s shopping list included meat and poultry as well as produce. “The meat here is really good,” she said, pointing to the Cricket Creek booth. “And I can use my benefits to get everything I need for my family for the week.”
“I’m diabetic,” Diane said, “so for people who are diabetic and on disability like I am, it’s important to eat a good diet. What am I going to do if those benefits are cut?”
Jude Sidney and Rosa Boldane were also shopping together. “This Market is phenomenal!” Jude said, though she had some salty remarks about work requirements and threats to SNAP benefits. “I’d love to work if I could,” she added. “Maybe I’ll repair wheelchairs,” she laughed, pointing at her own chair. “But I love the market. Where else could I spend $40 and get $80 worth of food?”
Grow Food Northampton’s Tuesday Market doubles the first $10 of SNAP purchases, and, paired with the state’s HIP (Healthy Incentives Program), eligible shoppers can get another $40 to $80 per week in benefits, depending on household size. Most of the Tuesday Market vendors participate in offering the benefits. Donations to GFN from over 25 local businesses fund the SNAP match.
According to its 2021 Annual Report, 27% of purchases at GFN’s summer and winter farmers markets were made using SNAP and HIP. “We would love to do more,” said Corey Kurtz, GFN’s Director of Development. “We want everyone to be able to shop here, regardless of income. We want the farmers to get a fair price for their food, and we want more of Northampton’s food dollars to stay local.”
As I lingered a few more moments at the Market, sipping an icy strawberry-mint drink from Song Sparrow Farm, I was grateful to be part of an organization whose mission is “Creating a just and resilient food system that nourishes our community and protects and enriches the Earth.” And I was sobered by the challenges many of our neighbors face when accessing the fresh, organic, locally grown food that many of us take for granted.