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In 2020, farmers’ markets saw an unprecedented increase in people using their SNAP/EBT cards to buy local food. The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM) reports total SNAP/EBT spending at farmers’ markets in Maine was up 66% in 2020 over 2019, an increase of over $90,000. The Maine Harvest Bucks program helped fuel that growth by giving shoppers matching bonus dollars for every dollar they spent with their SNAP/EBT. During a pandemic year when many were worried about reliable, quality food access, the Maine’s farmers’ market community stepped up to ensure thousands of Mainers had access to local food in a safe environment.
For more than a decade, farmers’ markets have served as an important resource for helping people experiencing food insecurity access healthy local food. The Maine Harvest Bucks program, operated by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Market, has existed at farmers’ markets since 2015. With Maine Harvest Bucks, when a shopper spends a dollar with SNAP/EBT, they earn a bonus “buck” that can only be spent on fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market. “We were so grateful to have the SNAP and Maine Harvest Bucks systems in place for 2020” says Deena Albert Parks of the Presque Isle Farmers’ Market. “We saw dozens of new customers, families and elders, visit us with their SNAP/EBT cards, and they were so grateful to be able to shop at our market and were surprised to receive the bonus bucks.”
The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM) recently surveyed shoppers who participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks program to further understand the program’s impact. Nearly 60% of respondents claim the program has helped them learn to cook healthier food, and nearly all respondents claim the program makes them eat and feel healthier. Of the respondents, ⅔ use the emergency food system (food pantries, soup kitchens), and 50% of participants say they would have to use the pantries more often if it wasn’t for the Maine Harvest Bucks program.
In 2020, 33 farmers’ markets participated in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, ranging from Houlton and Presque Isle, down to Ellsworth, Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft and all the way south to Kittery, Sanford, and Kennebunk. The program helps make local food more accessible to low-income shoppers, and helps to address an issue of equity when it comes to equal access to local food and farmers’ markets. More than $400,000 in SNAP and Maine Harvest Bucks was spent at farmers’ markets in 2020. Thus, Maine Harvest Bucks also serves as a local economic driver, as federal dollars that would normally go to big box stores stay in the hands of local farmers and other small local food businesses in the local economy.
Farmers’ markets in Maine are organized and managed collectively by the farmers’ market members. In 2020, many farmers had the additional task of navigating the emerging public health response protocols while also running their own farms. Nonetheless, nearly 100% of Maine’s farmers’ markets persevered in launching and running their markets during the pandemic. Markets across the state found an increased demand for most of their products, along with many new faces looking for a safe place to shop during the pandemic. “During the summer months, markets were appealing to many cautious shoppers because they were so spread out and took place outside” says Jimmy DeBiasi, Director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. “A significant cohort of SNAP/EBT shoppers are high-risk shoppers during the pandemic, and the ability to shop outside is helpful for many of these folks”.
The 2021 farmers’ market season is just getting underway in Maine. Farmers’ markets are prepared to continue following pandemic safety guidelines issued from Maine officials and the US Center for Disease Control. The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets encourages all shoppers to explore farmers’ markets this summer as a way to reconnect with community members and access the highest quality food available in Maine.
To learn more about the Maine Harvest Bucks program, visit www.maineharvestbucks.org
To explore farmers’ markets in your area, go to www.mainefarmersmarkets.org