Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients can use their funding to purchase garden seeds and plants to grow their own food.
To hobby farmers, the challenges associated with growing food may seem all too real: budgeting; access to land, water and equipment; threats from weather, pests and disease. But the 46.4 million Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have encountered a different set of food challenges—mainly purchasing ingredients for three daily meals—though that’s starting to change.
In 2011, Daniel Bowman Simon founded nonprofit organization SNAP Gardens in an attempt to publicize a little-known benefit of the SNAP program: that recipients can use the money to purchase seeds and plants to grow their own food.
“I started the project because in 2008, someone approached me at the farmers’ market and said she was using food stamps to garden and didn’t know anyone else who was,” Simon says. The woman was referring to a little-known clause in SNAP legislation, a Farm Bill provision, that says recipients can use SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer to purchase “seeds and plants for use in gardens to produce food for personal consumption of the eligible household.”
“I checked it out and it was legitimate,” Simon says. “I found people on food stamps, growers and food-issues people who didn’t know about it. This lady was right—there is definitely a need to raise awareness, so I went from there.”
Through his research, Simon found only one organization (located in Humbolt County, Calif.) that was distributing information about this benefit. So he began creating “flair,” including posters, signs, stickers and buttons, to hand out to farmers, farmers’ markets, food stamp offices and, now, more than 250 organizations in an effort to increase awareness of the choices available through SNAP. Despite the political skepticism surrounding the U.S. “food stamp” program, he sees SNAP Gardens as a way to encourage more people to support their local farmer and consume more fruits and vegetables.
“I see nothing terribly controversial about gardening, having some level of self-sufficiency, and taking a
modest government ‘handout’ and putting their sweat and hard work into making it more,” he says.
Although Simon has invested time in building hoop houses for gardens and interacting with SNAP participants in his local community of New York City, he has let the program take on its own iterations nationwide: He provides the knowledge and materials about SNAP Gardens and lets local communities run with the idea. One group he’s seen embrace the SNAP Gardens benefit is Feed Fayetteville, a hunger-relief and food-security organization in Fayetteville, Ark. According to the USDA, Washington County, where Fayetteville is located, had 28,008 individuals participating in the SNAP program in January 2012—more than any other county in the state.
“We envision taking a SNAP participant from the garden’s pitchfork to the table’s dinner fork by facilitating the life skills necessary to enable them to actively improve the quality of their lives,” says Adrienne Shaunfield, Feed Fayetteville’s community foodshed coordinator.
This year, the group is launching the Fayetteville Community SNAP Gardens initiative. As part of the effort, they’re partnering with farmers, Master Gardeners and other organizations to teach first-time gardeners basics like soil building, pest identification, seed saving and food preparation. The goal is to plug the participants, mostly those in the low-income neighborhoods of Fayetteville’s south side, into community gardens, where they will have access to land, tools, water and, most importantly, support.
The first point of connection for Fayetteville’s SNAP Garden newbies will be at the farmers’ market, where local farmers will play a critical role.
“We want first-time gardeners to succeed and find joy in growing their own food,” Shaunfield says. “So we are asking farmers to help SNAP Gardeners succeed by recommending their hardiest [varieties]. As part of our community-education plan, we are working on a set of SNAP Garden stickers for farmers to use for designating plants that are hardy and high-yield, such as Sun Gold tomatoes.”
Plus, Feed Fayetteville is partnering with the University of Arkansas’ Department of Horticulture to match funds that SNAP recipients can spend at participating farmers’ markets. They hope that by encouraging members to buy a couple of plants or a packet of seeds, they’ll empower people to grow pounds of food, offsetting their food costs and taking control of their food security.
“It’s so important that we can demonstrate success and prove around the country that [SNAP Gardens] is something more than information that can be useful to people,” Simon says.
In the next phase of the SNAP Gardens, he plans to work with four or five organizations like Feed Fayetteville to identify challenges and make resources available so gardening can be successful and rewarding for SNAP recipients. He encourages hobby farmers across the country to get involved with the program, as well.
“It would be great if hobby farmers selling at markets or local grocery stores would make sure the markets take food stamps, and they should get in touch with SNAP Gardens to request posters,” he says. “Maybe if they have extra land they aren’t farming, they can even open it up to another family who doesn’t have land.”
To request SNAP Gardens materials or make a donation to the organization, visit SNAPGardens.org.