BLACKSBURG, Va. — Fresh produce isn’t hard to come by at any of Virginia’s more than 250 farmers 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 abundant and readily available, fruits and vegetables aren’t necessarily the most affordable choices, especially for lower-income individuals or families. Purchasing canned or packaged foods is often the cheaper and more sustainable option.
A program, made possible by a partnership between the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, and a network of farmers markets and food stores across the commonwealth, is making it easier for shoppers – no matter their salaries – to access healthier foods.
Virginia Fresh Match is an incentive program designed to help individuals who use SNAP — formerly called food stamps — stretch their dollar at the farmers market. For example, a shopper who spends $10 with their EBT card receives another $10 to buy fresh fruits and veggies.
“Everyone loves this program,” said Meredith Ledlie Johnson, a project associate with Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program. “Many families on SNAP are running out of their benefits by the end of the month, so any way that we can assist them with stretching their food budget is beneficial.”
The program is also valuable to the communities in which the farmers and shoppers live.
According to the Virginia Fresh Match website, while Virginians spend more than $1 billion a year in SNAP, only two-tenths of 1 percent, or, $200,327 in 2019, goes to farmers markets.
“The whole point of targeting farmers markets is to keep the money as local as possible,” Ledlie Johnson said. “Whereas, if you did this at a Walmart or a Kroger, it wouldn’t have the same impact. There’s a proven multiplier that for every dollar spent at a farmers market, $2.50 goes back into 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 shoppers double their money at the market.
The program has also created a network of markets working together toward common goals of feeding their communities and supporting their local growers.
“Within this grant, we also applied to create a network of markets, because the number one thing we hear from farmers markets is that managing a market is a difficult job,” Ledlie Johnson said. “There is usually only one market manager who is usually not 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.
“That’s why this network we created is so important,” Ledlie Johnson said. “Now, market managers can learn together about this new consumer education aspect. Instead of competing for this information, or, getting misinformation about the program, we are training and supporting them together. That’s exciting to see.”
Ledlie Johnson said Virginia Fresh Match was especially significant in 2020 when the number of individuals and families on SNAP skyrocketed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a flexible tool to use, and because we had created these networks, farmers market managers were better able to navigate the program and adjust during a stressful and unprecedented time, especially for those in need of food assistance,” she said.
Just in this past year, Virginia Fresh Match reached another milestone as it slowly started to trickle into small retail. Ledlie Johnson gave the Roanoke Co+op and The Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, Virginia, as examples.
“We are trying to better serve the individuals who can’t make it to the farmers market because most markets are only open for one or two days a week for a few hours,” Ledlie Johnson said. “As with every aspect of Virginia Fresh Match, we are also trying to keep that dollar as local as possible. Co-ops or general stores in rural areas are great avenues to make that happen.”
–Mary Hardbarger, Virginia Tech