Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients can use their funding to purchase garden seedsÂ and plantsÂ 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,Â 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 challengesâmainly purchasing ingredients for three daily mealsâthough thatâs starting to change.
In 2011, Daniel Bowman Simon founded nonprofit organizationÂ 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.
âI started the project because in 2008, someone approached me at theÂ farmersâ market and said she was using food stamps to garden and didnât know anyone else who was,â Simon says. The woman was referring to a little-known clause in SNAP legislation, aÂ Farm Bill provision, that says recipients can use SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer to purchase âseeds and plants for use in gardens to produce food for personal consumption of the eligible household.â
âI checked it out and it was legitimate,â Simon says. âI found people on food stamps, growers and food-issues people who didnât know about it. This lady was rightâthere is definitely a need to raise awareness, so I went from there.â
Through his research, Simon found only one organization (located in Humbolt County, Calif.) that was distributing information about this benefit. So he began creating âflair,â including posters, signs, stickers and buttons, to hand out to farmers, farmersâ markets, food stamp offices and, now, more thanÂ 250 organizations in an effort to increase awareness of the choices available through SNAP. Despite the political skepticism surrounding the U.S. âfood stampâ program, he sees SNAP Gardens as a way to encourage more people to support their local farmer and consume more fruits and vegetables.
âI see nothing terribly controversial about gardening, having some level of self-sufficiency, and taking a
modest government âhandoutâ and putting their sweat and hard work into making it more,â he says.
AlthoughÂ Simon has invested time in building hoop houses for gardensÂ 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 heâs 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 2012âmore than any other county in the state.
âWe envision taking a SNAP participant from the gardenâs pitchfork to the tableâs dinner fork by facilitating the life skills necessary to enable them to actively improve the quality of their lives,â says Adrienne Shaunfield, Feed Fayettevilleâs community foodshed coordinator.Â
This year, the group is launching the Fayetteville Community SNAP Gardens initiative. As part of the effort, theyâre partnering with farmers, Master Gardeners and other organizations to teach first-time gardeners basics like soil building, pest identification,Â seed saving and food preparation. The goal is to plug the participants, mostly those in the low-income neighborhoods of Fayettevilleâs south side, into community gardens, where they will have access to land, tools, water and, most importantly, support.
The first point of connection for Fayettevilleâs SNAP Garden newbies will be at the farmersâ market, where local farmers will play a critical role.
âWe want first-time gardeners to succeed and find joy in growing their own food,â Shaunfield says. âSo 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.â
Plus, Feed Fayetteville is partnering with the University of Arkansasâ Department of Horticulture to match funds that SNAP recipients can spend at participating farmersâ markets. They hope that by encouraging members to buy a couple of plants or a packet of seeds, theyâll empower people to grow pounds of food, offsetting their food costs and taking control of their food security.
âItâs 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,â 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.
âIt would be great if hobby farmersÂ 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,â he says. âMaybe if they have extra land they arenât farming, they can even open it up to another family who doesnât have land.â
To request SNAP Gardens materials or make a donation to the organization, visit SNAPGardens.org.