By Autumn Shelton, RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables can be a challenge for many low-income residents living in West Virginia’s most rural locations. That is why those with the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition have been working to get quality foods to those who need it the most through the grant-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Stretch.
This program lets SNAP/EBT users “stretch” their funds by receiving extra money, in the form of tokens, each time they make a purchase at a participating farmers market. However, as beneficial as the SNAP Stretch program is for thousands of West Virginians, funding is always an issue.
In anticipation of the upcoming legislative session, and before budget recommendations are made in December, the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, with support from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, has made a line-item budget request in the amount of $300,000 to expand SNAP Stretch and give the program sustainability.
“Right now the program has been funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP),” said West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition Executive Director Spencer Moss in an interview with RealWV. “We have to compete for this grant every three to four years. We also have to come up with matching funds for it. It is a completely long, arduous process that, over the years, has created a little bit of instability with the program. ‘Will we or won’t we have money this year?’ That’s hard on businesses that are trying to plan, and it’s hard on families that are trying to plan. So, the $300,000 gives the program a bit of sustainability, and we can use that as match money to apply for more funding from the USDA.”
Moss explained that should they receive $300,000 from the state legislature, they will use those funds as a match to apply for a $1 million USDA grant, which would have a large impact on the SNAP Stretch program.
SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program, is a federal program that provides benefits to low-income families so they may purchase healthy and nutritional foods, Moss noted, adding that the SNAP Stretch program helps West Virginia low-income families stretch those federal benefits, while incentivizing them to eat healthy, local food.
A user can visit a SNAP Stretch participating West Virginia farmers market location and swipe their EBT card for up to $15 dollars, which can be used on any EBT eligible food, Moss said. Then, they will receive a matching amount in the form of tokens, which can be spent on fruits and vegetables at various vendor booths. An adult who swipes their card for $15 will receive a 1:1 match of $15 in tokens, seniors and children receive $30 in tokens for every $15 card swipe and grandparents raising their grandchildren receive $45 in tokens for each $15 swipe, she continued.
“There are 30-35 SNAP Stretch sites across the state,” Moss said. “Some operate year round, but most are seasonal.”
In addition to the current SNAP Stretch locations, Moss noted that more farmers markets have expressed an interest in participating in the program, but there isn’t enough funding currently available for expansion.
“We don’t have the funding that would allow us to bring on more farmers markets, more food stands and expand into more counties,” Moss said.
According to data provided by the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, between 2018-2022 SNAP Stretch served those in 35 counties and benefited 79,279 families. In those five years, the program made a $3.89 million economic impact, investing $2.33 million into the local food and farm economy.
In Greenbrier County, Paula Brammer, manager of the Alderson Community Market, a SNAP Stretch site, said the program has had a tremendous benefit for residents as well as local farmers.
“It has benefited us a lot,” Brammer said. “It’s a really great program because it gets people out there trying different vegetables that they wouldn’t try before, and it helps increase sales for all of the vendors.”
Brammer added that at the end of each market day, the vendor will turn in their SNAP Stretch tokens and the market treasurer will write the vendor a check for the amount of the tokens.
While providing extra money for local farmers, the SNAP Stretch program also gives low-income families more spending power.
“Theoretically, their dollar could go up to four times as much as they had, if they have children and a senior with them,” Brammer said. “It really stretches out how much they can buy. It works well for everybody.”
Of the estimated 200 people who shop at the Alderson Community Market at the height of the season, about 10 percent of them use SNAP Stretch, Brammer noted.
“It’s a really popular program. I’ve talked to other markets that I go to, and White Sulphur Springs and Hinton (in Summers County) want to get on it as well.”
However, cost remains an issue, especially for markets that must operate on smaller budgets, and the EBT card reader used for purchases can be cost-prohibitive for those interested in becoming a SNAP Stretch participant.
“The machine that we use to run the cards is really expensive,” Brammer said, noting that each market must pay for the machine with their own funds. “It cuts into our budget. We’ve had up to $150 a month in fees for that machine.”
Yet, Brammer said that being a SNAP Stretch participant helps those in local communities.
“I think the program is important because there are a lot of people on EBT . . . it really surprised me how many people are on EBT. So, if we can stretch how much they can get for their food budget, that makes a big difference, especially if they have a family,” Brammer said.
In a recent report from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Family Assistance, as of June 2023 there were 158,676 households in West Virginia receiving SNAP benefits totaling $47,159,268.
Of those families, according to information provided by the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, 23,160 participated in SNAP Stretch in 2022, amounting to $409,243 in SNAP Stretch funds being distributed.
For many, including Brammer, they would like to see that amount increased.
“Some families that I see shop with us have three to five children,” Brammer said. “Maybe, each child could get a little bit extra. It is expensive to raise children, so if we could get a little extra stretch for the kids, that would be good.”
In addition to the Alderson Community Market, Moss said that she has many stories from farmers throughout the state–all who have shared how much the program has changed the lives of both farmers and low-income families.
One of those stories Moss shared is of a family-owned and operated farmers market located in Preston County.
“Metheny’s Farmers Market can move hundreds of thousands a year in SNAP Stretch,” Moss said. “When she started she was just using her product, but this has grown her business tremendously. She has people coming from multiple counties to buy bushels of green beans to can, they still have a large canning community, for the winter.”
The success of Metheny’s Farmers Market serves as an example of what the SNAP Stretch program may become for numerous smaller farmers markets statewide.
A SNAP Stretch fact sheet from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy states that “a $1 million state investment in SNAP Stretch could have a $2.84 million economic benefit to the state’s economy by pulling down federal SNAP dollars and increasing local economic activity both in and beyond the food industry.”
Two “fast facts” from the report state:
- “In West Virginia, SNAP Stretch dollars have increased sales and income for local markets and farmers, allowing some to expand production and increase wages for their employees.”
- “In one study, three-fourths of farmers participating in a SNAP incentive program reported making more money and 38.6 percent reported ‘increasing the scope of their operations by planting more acres, buying equipment, building greenhouses or hoop houses, or hiring more workers.’”
The report goes on to state, “Capturing more sales in locally-owned businesses like the farm markets participating in SNAP Stretch is good for West Virginia small business owners and our broader economy. When customers purchase goods at locally owned businesses, three times more of that money stays and recirculates in the local economy than when a purchase is made at a non-local chain store like Walmart or Dollar General.”
“What we like to say about the coalition is that our organization exists at the intersection of farm viability and food access,” Moss said, adding that although the state legislature has not funded the organization in the four years they have been asking for assistance, they have received CARES Act funding through the Governor’s office, and most federal funds have been matched through philanthropic donations.
But philanthropic donations cannot be counted on to give the program continued sustainability.
“This program is that triple bottom line,” Moss concluded. “We are able, with $300,000 a year, which is drop-in-the-bucket money for our state budget, we are able to help low-income residents access more food, healthy food, and we are giving this money back to West Virginia farmers. At the end of the day, it’s about economic development. It’s not just that $300,000, it’s the money from the federal government that’s matching it. It’s also SNAP/EBT dollars. A lot of EBT users want to stretch their dollars as far as they will go, so they are going to go to Walmart, they’re going to go to ALDI or Dollar General, and that’s how they are going to spend their money. That’s economical. That makes sense. But, those companies are not headquartered in West Virginia. Something like .30 cents on every dollar spent at businesses like that stays in the West Virginia economy. The rest of that money goes out-of-state. Whereas, in our program, this money goes to ‘Farmer Brandy’ or ‘Farmer Adam.’ This money goes directly to them to fund their farm business. It allows farmers to scale up their businesses. They’ve bought more property. They’ve increased their planting . . . it’s everything you could really ask for in a program.”
For more information about the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, visit their website https://www.wvfoodandfarm.org/.
For a complete list of statewide SNAP Stretch participants, visit https://www.snapstretch.com/find-your-market.
To learn more about the Alderson Community Market, or to become a Greenbrier County vendor, contact Paula Brammer at 360-508-1383 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.