Cilantro. Turnips, their tips blushing a rosy pink. Bunches of spring onions; ruby-red radishes; slim, Japanese eggplants. Bags stuffed with greens, leaves peeking from their tops; fresh eggs; baskets of peaches; baskets of onions; baskets of prickly pear, their pads like overlarge ears for a desert Mickey Mouse. A woman perusing the Community Food Bank’s Abundant Harvest Cooperative booth squeals. “Oooh!” she says, “I love nopales. I fry them, then add a little lemon and salt.” Eric Sandstrom, one of the market workers that day, smiles and agrees. The prickly pear pads and other fresh, beautiful produce are the reason she—and other low-income patrons like her—shop at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market.
Since the introduction of the Double Up SNAP program in the summer of 2015, many such patrons have had even more reason to shop at farmers’ markets across Tucson. Currently funded largely by a one-time USDA grant and administered by a network of partners, the Double Up program takes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars, and doubles them, giving recipients up to $20 more per market to spend on Arizona-grown greens and produce. To call this a win-win is an understatement. As local farmer Joe Marlow of SouthWinds Farms explains, he’s seen a distinct uptick in sales all while being able “to put good food into the bellies of people who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.”
If you’re thinking, “What a great new idea!” you would in fact be wrong. The Food Stamp Program (as SNAP was known for most of its existence) began back in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. And its first administrator, Milo Perkins, described the inspiration for the program as follows: “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across the chasm.” So the notion of linking farmers with the poor is a return to the program’s roots, while the picture many people have of food stamp recipients using their assistance to buy frozen dinners is of far more recent origin. As farmers’ markets gradually disappeared from our cities, people on food stamps—like everyone else—were left with fewer, if any, ways to shop for local, fresh produce. Over time, frozen and convenience foods took up a greater part of their diets. Not only were such foods available, they were—and are—more affordable than produce, and can be depended upon to last.
Certainly this was true for my mother while my younger sister and I were growing up. Like many of her generation, my mom, who married in 1963, believed her husband would take care of putting food on the table. When that turned out not to be true, she was left with a high-school education, the mobile home my dad had deemed good enough, and two mouths to feed. Food stamps were how we made ends meet, along with visits to the local food pantry. While we bought some produce at the supermarket, my mother concentrated her dollars on items such as bulk ground chuck, which she divided into chunks and froze at the start of each month. The things I remember best, though, came from the food pantry, which was housed in a low-slung, windowless building made of cinder blocks. Outside, we waited in line beside a busy street, cars flashing by, feeling every pair of eyes that glanced away. Inside were blocks of plastic-y government-issued cheese, powdered milk, and week-old doughnuts that the grocery stores couldn’t sell. If we got a vegetable, it was okra, which, along with grits, was one of the strange Southern foods the government seemed to think all poor people everywhere must eat, even if they lived in a trailer in Wisconsin like we did.
Green though it was, I never did develop a taste for okra. But remembering my food-pantry days makes it even lovelier to visit the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park on a glorious Sunday morning in May. Growers like Joe Marlow of SouthWinds bustle about with bins of leafy things. Marlow notes that the Double Up dollars can also be used to purchase CSA shares from his farm; he’s had four or five customers do that. From the SouthWinds booth, I walk under the booth-lined metal awnings to the center of the market. To one side is the info booth where market-goers can get their SNAP and Double Up coupons. Nearby, gangs of bikes are tied up to bike stands, mesquite trees, and anything else anyone can tie a bike to; the wind tousles the last of the Palo Verde blossoms and folks sip coffee while two T-shirted guys strum guitars. My mom, who was a farmer’s daughter herself, would have been thrilled to be able to bring her two girls to shop in such a place.
From the market’s center, I follow the fiery, spicy smell of roasting peppers to Red’s Roasters, where Kris Young and a helper are busy roasting zucchini; they roast all of their veggies on site. Young, possessor of both a large red beard and a pink and blue straw hat, is a big fan of the Double Up program. Before the program, most SNAP recipients gravitated toward the sort of long-lasting foods my mother once bought: eggs, meat. So the Double-Up dollars, good only for fruits and veggies, act as a huge inducement. “Once they did the double thing,” Young says, “people really started asking ‘Well, where can I spend my extra SNAP dollars?’ Once they had more, they were able to explore and see what more things they could buy with it, and there’s a lot more.” Like Marlow, Young has noticed how the program has affected sales—his are up by about $300 a month. “And that’s $300 that would not have been spent on vegetables here.”
Back at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market on Thursday afternoon, people are equally enthusiastic. Erik Sandstrom, the worker who had been chatting about nopales, is also a SNAP recipient. Sandstrom, whose job at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is part of a year of service work under the Presbyterian Church’s Young Adult Volunteer Program, also does unpaid pastoral care. “It’s great,” he says. “It’s taking basically $200 and turning it into $400. And that just helps me so much when I’m cooking. It gives me fresh food.” Other vendors have also used the program occasionally. Laura Brehm, currently at Maggie’s Farm, depended on SNAP for help when she worked at another farm for less money. “It was only $16,” she explained, though with the Double Up program that became $32. “I was very thankful to have it,” she says. Katherine, a market goer who prefers not to give her last name, agrees. “It’s been a great thing,” she says. “It’s been a way for me to afford to eat healthy while still living in low income. I don’t like to buy my vegetables anywhere else.”
“Great,” was a word I heard from nearly everyone. According to Kara Jones of the Community Food Bank, SNAP-related sales have grown from $8,000 per year in 2015 to $42,000 in 2016, including the bump provided by the Double Up funding. “Running this program means that community members with SNAP benefits are participating in the farmers’ market at a higher rate—which is exactly the point,” says Jones.
Nick Szumowski of Heirloom Farmers’ Markets reports similarly significant gains, with SNAP-related purchases increasing from $15,000 in 2015 to more than $30,000 in 2016, with the Double Up sales accounting for more than $13,000 of that total. In fact, the only not-great thing about the Double Up Program may be its uncertain future. The federal Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant that provides most of the program’s funding ends in early 2018. For the moment, managers at both the Heirloom Farmers’ Market and the Community Food Bank are committed to keeping the program going for as long as possible and both markets are actively seeking additional funds.
The loss of the program would be a huge blow to all of those it’s helped, though perhaps none more so than a disabled woman who prefers that her name not be shared. Though she no longer visits the market (someone from the food bank does her shopping for her), she writes glowingly of the program. She explains that she can’t eat many of the foods found in most supermarkets, and that “healthy food is key to maintaining function.”
“Each week,” she says, “when I see those bright, vibrant greens, beets, carrots, fresh fruits and eggs, meat, honey and nuts, I’m filled with gratitude. I get most of my weekly food from the market. And the Double-Up SNAP program makes that possible. Each dollar stretches twice as far, and we don’t need to choose bargain or lesser quality. This program makes health-giving food accessible.” It is, she says, “honestly life-sustaining.” ✜
Kathe Lison is the author of The Whole Fromage, a book about traditional cheesemaking in France. She lives and eats in Tucson.