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Amidst the spinach, eggs, cheese and kimchi on offer on a recent Saturday morning at the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market in Louisville, Kentucky, Laina Brown was doing a brisk trade in wooden tokens. The tokens are a substitute for cash and market patrons can buy them with a regular debit or credit card, or with the card that links to a SNAP account (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme), better known in the US as food stamps.

Brown, a volunteer, related how a young man with a baby in tow wanted to be assured he could use his benefit card to buy food at the farmers’ market. “And he said, ‘I can? Wow!’ He walked away with a lot of pride. That was a really cool thing.”

It’s not just a cool thing for SNAP recipients, many of whom live in food deserts or otherwise have limited access to fresh produce. There are many community-based programmes as well that make it possible for a variety of low-income populations to benefit by buying from farmers’ markets in the US, giving farmers a boost too.

At the stall of DreamCatcher Farm, which specialises in grass-fed beef, lamb and pork, proprietor Stan Gentle gestured to a roll of tokens in the top drawer of his cash box. “These are all $5s, and they just came in over the last hour,” said Gentle. “It’s a good programme – it works.”

SNAP licensing for farmers markets has grown rapidly in recent years. According to the USDA, the federal agency that funds SNAP, there were nearly 6,500 SNAP-authorised farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers in 2015, an increase of 760% since 2008. SNAP redemptions totalled $19.4 million last year. “It is a USDA priority to increase farmers’ market participation in SNAP to improve access to fresh and nutritious food. Increased participation by farmers’ markets is a win-win for farmers who experience an increase in customers, and for SNAP clients who have better access to healthy food,” said USDA spokesperson Jalil Isa.

To qualify for SNAP benefits, a single person must have a gross monthly income of $1,276 or less; for a family of 4, that figure is $2,628 or less. It is mostly families who rely on the scheme to put food on the table. Of the 45.7 million Americans currently counted as SNAP recipients, nearly half are children. SNAP households spend an average of $490 on food every month, $257 of which is SNAP dollars. That works out to only about $8 per day on average for a family. Many still struggle to buy enough food in general, and nutritious food in particular. “Challenges to developing healthy habits include access and affordability,” said Nicole Andersen, Coordinator of Farmers’ Market Programmes at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Andersen was speaking at a session entitled Eating Healthy on a SNAP Budget at a recent conference on poverty and hunger put on by the Food Bank of New York City. Stretching a SNAP budget with vouchers for fresh produce from farmers’ markets is one of the primary ways that New York City, along with other municipalities and several non-profits around the country, are helping low-income Americans to eat healthier.

Known as Health Bucks, New York City’s programme pioneered the concept of linking food stamps and farmers more than 10 years ago. The scheme provides benefit recipients with a $2 coupon for every $5 spent at a farmers’ market. Health Bucks are distributed on-site, at more than 120 markets throughout the city, as well as through 385 community-based organisations, at Health Department-sponsored nutrition and cooking classes and through healthcare companies and by elected officials that purchase the coupons for their constituencies. One measure of the programme’s success is its high rate of redemptions: for the last few years this has been at around 85%, according to Andersen. Last year, she estimates that about 400,000 Health Bucks worth more than $800,000 in fresh fruits and vegetables were distributed. Equally important, the scheme has led to 60% of new farmers’ markets opening in the city being located in low-income areas. “Health Bucks make farmers’ markets more profitable by increasing EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) sales,” said Andersen. (EBT is the debit card-based system used by benefit recipients to buy food.) An independent study found that between 2005-2010, individual farmer income from the Health Bucks programme increased from around $200 to about $2,800.

While SNAP itself is funded and administered by the US federal government, voucher schemes vary by locality and help to incentivise people to buy fresh produce, from 40% bonuses like Health Bucks to one-to-one dollar matches, often up to about $20. A number of non-profit organisations also work to support and amplify the effect of these nutrition incentive programmes. Some, like the Fair Food Network, provide their own one-to-one vouchers to SNAP recipients in 21 states through a programme called Double Up Food Bucks. Others, such as Wholesome Wave, act more as consultants for community-based food access organisations working to connect farmers with low-income consumers. By providing toolkits, technical assistance and marketing expertise, they help farmers’ markets and other direct-to-consumer models like CSAs reach this group of customers faster and more effectively. “We like to dispel the myth that there is a lack of demand for healthy food among low-income consumers,” said Skye Cornell, Wholesome Wave’s Programmes Officer. “Making the healthy option, the easy and affordable option is where the change happens.” Cornell noted that in 2014, SNAP consumers using doubling programmes within the Wholesome Wave network spent $3.3 million in nutrition incentives and federal benefits combined. She said this had an impact on over 5,500 farmers.

What is the future of such programmes? For Wholesome Wave, part of the answer is to include supermarkets, corner stores and other brick-and-mortar establishments in the equation. “To scale and reach more people, we need to work with retailers to see both the benefits and demand among low income consumers for food that is locally grown,” said Cornell. Meanwhile, other organisations are extending the direct-to-consumer model in new ways. New York’s Common Pantry recently launched a pilot CSA programme between its clients and Corbin Hill Food Project, a farm share programme aimed at supplying fresh produce grown in upstate New York to low-income neighbourhoods in the city. The packages were initially priced at a subsidised cost of $10 each, for about 15-20 lbs (6.8–9 kg) of produce every other week, but the feedback from clients was that this was still too expensive, so the price was reduced to $8, according to Tyler Caughie, Food Programmes Manager at Common Pantry. It is a novel approach since pantries normally distribute their food to clients without charge. “Our goal from the pantry side is to supply people with as much nutritious food as possible,” said Caughie. “Fruit and vegetables are not all that common for pantries to distribute both because of perishability and expense.” The perception among food bank operators and their clients is that packaged food – often starchy staples like macaroni and cheese, breakfast cereal and ramen noodles – provides better value for money.

With about 15% of the population at or below the poverty line, and more than 48 million people considered food-insecure in America, the cost of food is a key determinant in how people eat. Benefit schemes like SNAP and the programmes that link them to farmers have a real impact on public health and the viability of family farming. And they are likely to become even more important as the little-known ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents) clauses of federal welfare reform measures come into effect, which will limit the time that “able-bodied” people can draw food benefit to only 3 months within a 3-year period. By some estimates, these new restrictions will cut off SNAP assistance for half a million to a million recipients nationwide. That may seem Draconian, but those working on the front lines of food access are more pragmatic. Nicole Andersen of the Health Bucks programme, for instance, said,“[Former SNAP recipients] will still be eligible to participate through community-based organisations, because the goal is to reach low-income New Yorkers regardless of SNAP participation. At that point it’s a matter of promoting the programme and letting them know Health Bucks are still available to them.”

Because fresh food remains more expensive than processed food for many, voucher and other incentive programmes make it possible for the poor to eat better. Not only do they go some way toward addressing food insecurity and poverty, but they also bring people closer to their food producer and help farmers make a better living.

Photograph: Lance Cheung