SNAP changes promote farmers markets

Oregon ahead of curve in access to nutrition

By Tara Bannow / The Bulletin / @tarabannow

Other provisions in the farm bill:

• Nutrition programs must now include education on health activities in addition to healthy food choices.

• Nonprofits that deliver meals to seniors and disabled individuals can now accept SNAP benefits. (Meals on Wheels programs in Oregon already accept SNAP benefits, according to Belit Burke, Oregon’s SNAP manager.)

• By 2020, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be revised to include nutrition and dietary guidelines designed specifically for pregnant women and children.

The farm bill President Barack Obama signed into law last Friday includes a number of provisions designed to improve the nutrition of those receiving government assistance to buy food. It dedicates money to incentivize shopping at farmers markets, for example.

For many states, the rules — that allow food assistance to be spent on community-supported agriculture programs and meal delivery services for seniors — will prompt the creation of new programs.

In Oregon, however, they will serve to strengthen programs that have been in place for years.

“This is a case of the rest of the country catching up with Oregon and other states who have been on the cutting edge of this for a while,” Robyn Johnson, public policy manager for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said of the provision that allows food benefits to be spent on CSAs.

But, as nice as they may be, some advocates say the benefit of the law’s nutrition programs will be overshadowed by the fact that it cuts more than $8 billion over the next decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known until 2008 as the Food Stamp Program, which provides food benefits to low-income Americans.

“The improvements just are going to be a drop in the bucket by comparison to what this loss is going to be,” Johnson said.

The cuts are directed specifically at a component of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that allows some LIHEAP recipients to receive additional SNAP benefits.

While the change doesn’t eliminate anyone from SNAP, it cuts the additional monthly food benefits of roughly 80,000 recipients by an average of $58, or a $4.6 million monthly cut statewide, according to an analysis by the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Belit Burke, the manager of Oregon’s SNAP, said shielding SNAP recipients from the cuts would require Oregon Housing and Community Services, which oversees LIHEAP, to pour additional money into the program. It’s unclear whether that will happen, as it would impact other Housing and Community Services programming, including weatherization programs, she said.

The farm bill’s noteworthy nutrition provisions include:

• SNAP at farmers markets

The farm bill dedicates $100 million over the next four years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to supplement peoples’ SNAP benefits when they spend them at farmers markets.

It’s unclear exactly how this program will work yet, but Johnson said farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits will likely need to apply for a portion of the money, which they will then use to supplement their customers’ SNAP benefits.

For many states, accepting SNAP at farmers markets is a new concept. Oregon’s markets, by contrast, have done this for years. Last year, 70 farmers markets in Oregon accepted SNAP, including the Bend Farmers Market, which took in $17,000 in SNAP benefits in 2013, said Katrina Wiest, manager of the Bend Farmers Market.

But $100 million — while it sounds like a lot — doesn’t go very far when you consider all of the farmers markets in the country, Johnson said.

“The investment is not huge,” she said.

Burke, the state’s SNAP manager, said she thinks Oregon has a better shot at landing some of the money than other states because it’s proven it can effectively allow SNAP to be used at farmers markets.

“What the USDA wouldn’t want is to award grant funds to a state that wasn’t ready for them and wouldn’t be able to get those dollars into the hands of the people that they were intended for,” she said.

Some of Oregon’s farmers markets solicit private donations from nonprofit organizations and others to supplement the SNAP benefits of recipients who choose to shop there. Some double the benefits — so if the recipient spent $10 in SNAP benefits, they would get to buy $20 worth of food at the market, for example. Others are only able to provide smaller bonuses, like an extra $5 for every $10 in SNAP benefits spent.

The Bend Farmers Market has not yet solicited private donations to supplement customers’ SNAP benefits, so every SNAP dollar spent equals a dollar at the market, Wiest said.

“We’re looking into it, we just haven’t got all our ducks in a row yet to figure out how to do it and who to ask for the money,” she said.

Wiest said the Bend Farmers Market could always use the extra cash, but given the cuts some people may see to their SNAP allotments, they might cut out the market altogether.

“The caveat is, if they cut SNAP benefits, we’ll probably see less people coming to the market because they are very frugal with those dollars and they’re very savvy in knowing where to get the best deals and we may not be that at the market anymore,” she said. “It may be your local grocer, or it could be somewhere else.”

• SNAP in CSA

The law allows SNAP recipients to spend their benefits on CSAs, which are farms that allow people to purchase a membership ahead of a season and receive food on a weekly basis throughout the season. The idea is to support farmers by spreading the risk of a bad season among many people rather than just a few.

As with farmers markets, dozens of CSAs in Oregon already accept SNAP benefits. Since most CSAs require the membership fee, which typically is in the hundreds of dollars, at the beginning of the season, the farmers often have to cut a special deal to the SNAP recipients, such as allowing them to pay monthly.

While this provision won’t change much for Oregon, the farm bill does provide more guidance and clarity for farmers who choose to accept SNAP, Johnson said.

The only CSA that has served Central Oregon and accepts SNAP is Winter Green Farm in Noti, according to a website called Oregon SNAP CSA Farms. But after a decade of traveling three hours east to make deliveries to Bend, Winter Green this year is cutting Central Oregon out of its coverage area.

• Stocking requirements

Stores that accept SNAP benefits must offer at least seven items in four basic categories: fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. They must also offer perishable items in at least three of those categories, up from the previous requirement of two.

This provision may help alleviate the number of food deserts in Oregon, areas that lack access to nutritious foods, Burke said.

In some neighborhoods, convenience stores or other small stores end up being peoples’ main food source if they can’t access transportation to grocery stores, she said.

“If they’re really desperate and they really want to bring food home, they’ll get what’s readily available to them,” Burke said. “If retailers aren’t carrying those fresh fruit and vegetables and other nutritious things that they need, they’re not able to buy them.”

A potential downside to this could be that stores may find the stocking requirements to be such a burden that they quit accepting SNAP altogether, Johnson and Burke agreed.

“It may be because some places are so remote and it costs so much money to get food out there, that they may just not be able to accept SNAP anymore,” Johnson said.

That, coupled with the law’s requirement that retailers buy their own machines to process SNAP benefits, could negatively affect rural communities, she said.

DHS over the years has been disseminating free machines to communities that apply for them.

The Bend Farmers Market purchased its own for $1,200 using a portion of the grant from the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council that allowed it to begin accepting SNAP five years ago, Wiest said.

“Had we not got that grant, we couldn’t have afforded to start it ourselves,” she said.

Before the Senate voted on the bill Feb. 4, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon urged all of Oregon’s senators to reject it due to its cuts to SNAP.

Johnson’s experience has been that when peoples’ budgets are stretched, the nutritional content of their meals becomes less and less important in favor of simply getting meals on the table.

“What we know is when people have less money for food, they’re going to buy, prepare and eat the cheapest food possible,” she said. “They’re going to shrink the size of their meals for themselves and their children and, in many cases, folks are going to skip meals altogether.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304, tbannow@bendbulletin.com