Fresh produce isn’t hard to find at one of Virginia’s more than 250 farmer’s markets. Some might call the rainbow of offerings, from bright red tomatoes this summer to earthy purple beets this fall, the stars of the show.
Although plentiful and readily available, fruits and vegetables are not necessarily the most affordable choices, especially for low-income individuals or families. Buying canned or packaged foods is often the cheapest and most sustainable option.
A program, made possible through a partnership between Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Exercise, and a network of farmers’ markets and grocery stores across the Commonwealth, facilitates the task of buyers – regardless of their salary – to access healthier food.
Virginia Fresh Match is an incentive program designed to help people who use SNAP – formerly known as food stamps – stretch their money into the farmers market. For example, a buyer who spends $ 10 with their EBT card receives an additional $ 10 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Everyone loves this program,” said Meredith Ledlie Johnson, project associate in the Family Nutrition Program at Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Many families on SNAP are running out of their benefits by the end of the month, so any way we can help them stretch their food budgets is beneficial.”
The program is also valuable for the communities where farmers and buyers live.
According to the Virginia Fresh Match website, while Virginians spend more than $ 1 billion a year on SNAP, only one-fifth of 1%, or $ 200,327 in 2019, goes to farmers’ markets.
“The point of targeting farmers’ markets is to keep the money as local as possible,” said Ledlie Johnson. “Whereas if you did that in a Walmart or a Kroger, it wouldn’t have the same impact. There is a proven multiplier that for every dollar spent in a farmers market, $ 2.50 goes back to the community.
Virginia Fresh Match is funded by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Now in its fourth year, the program has expanded beyond its original concept of helping buyers double their money at the market.
The program also created a network of markets working together towards common goals of feeding their communities and supporting their local producers.
“As part of this grant, we also asked to create a market network, because the first thing we hear from farmers’ markets is that running a market is hard work,” said Ledlie Johnson. “There’s usually only one market manager who isn’t usually full time, and they wear a lot of different hats. “
Introducing a new program, such as Virginia Fresh Match, to this long list of responsibilities could be a daunting task.
“This is why this network that we have created is so important,” said Ledlie Johnson. “Now market leaders can learn together about this new aspect of consumer education. Instead of competing for this information or getting the wrong information about the program, we train and support them together. It’s exciting to see.
Ledlie Johnson said Virginia Fresh Match was especially important in 2020 when the number of individuals and families on SNAP skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a flexible tool to use, and because we had created these networks, agricultural market managers were better able to navigate the program and adapt during a stressful and unprecedented time, especially for those who needed food aid, ”she said.
Just last year, Virginia Fresh Match took another step forward by slowly starting to expand into smaller retail stores. Ledlie Johnson gave as examples the Roanoke Co + op and the Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“We’re trying to better serve people who can’t make it to the farmer’s market because most markets are only open one or two days a week for a few hours,” said Ledlie Johnson. “As with all aspects of Virginia Fresh Match, we also try to keep this dollar as local as possible. Cooperatives or general stores in rural areas are great ways to do this.