The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted significant failures in our food systems and there is no way back to normal. We need more resilient systems that can handle future shocks from pandemics, national emergencies and climate change.
To get there, we need to change how we think and work. We need solutions throughout the whole food system, not just solutions that work for the food industry.
In the midsummer heat, produce in Roanoke is quickly rolling in and out via community-based food retailers like farmers markets, mobile markets and neighborhood stores. These retailers provide neighborhood-level food access, have trust-based relationships with the community, provide sales outlets for local farmers and keep more dollars in local economies.
In the United States, especially during the pandemic, it has been hard for people to make ends meet. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a two-prong policy that addresses food security and drives economic growth.
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SNAP is the main food and nutrition security program, accounting for almost 75% of the farm bill budget. Yet, there is potential for its benefits to be more evenly distributed to farmers and community-based retailers.
Community-based retailers are meeting food security needs. Farmers markets that accept SNAP have continued to grow, especially during the pandemic.
SNAP sales at farmers markets and with direct-to-consumer farmers increased by 79%, and 42% more SNAP households made at least one purchase from these retailers. Despite the growth in community-based retailers, the barriers to accepting SNAP (especially online ones) preclude a lot of these retailers from capturing sales, while limiting food access points for people who use the program.
The back-end administration of SNAP tends to work well for large supermarkets. They captured the majority of the $105.8 billion SNAP budget in fiscal year 2022. In 2021, supermarkets and superstores made up 15% of retailers and 79% of SNAP sales.
The expansion of SNAP online pilot programs also has continued to benefit large retailers. In 2020, Walmart and Amazon were the only approved SNAP online retailers in 33 states, and there have been questions about their online SNAP sales tactics.
In many states, SNAP online retailers still are limited to Amazon, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Aldi, Publix, Food Lion and BJ’s Wholesale Club. We can say “yes” to SNAP online and “yes” to supporting community-based retailers, especially in areas where supermarkets decide not to locate because the economics don’t work.
Community-based food retailers want to stay and grow with the community, from soil to plate. For example, Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) Mobile Markets travel to rural community centers (a 20-mile drive to a supermarket), to urban low-income senior housing sites (a 45-minute bus ride to a supermarket) and to apartment complexes where refugees are resettled (a 1-hour walk to a supermarket).
The mobile market purchases all of its food at a fair price from local and regional farmers, accepts SNAP and provides SNAP nutrition incentives that reduce the cost of high-quality produce by 50%. The discount comes via Virginia Fresh Match, a current grantee of federal Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) funds.
This is what community-based food systems can look like. It is high time we support and prioritize them in policy.
For our food systems, let’s not seek to get back to normal. We can craft a new reality, and we need to craft it before it is too late.
We can start with making the following changes to the 2023 farm bill:
- Support the federal Nutrition Incentive Hub that provides technical assistance to community-based projects. These initiatives otherwise might not secure or implement the highly technical GusNIP, SNAP, and Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program grants.
- Provide flexibility for GusNIP applicants who are working at the community level and cannot provide a 100% match for federal funds.
- Integrate nutrition incentives into the SNAP funding model as opposed to an add-on, grant-funded program.
- Ensure SNAP online is not an additional cost for community-based retailers, especially those working in and with communities that have limited access to fresh produce. These retailers cannot afford additional monthly payment processing charges from SNAP online transaction platforms.
- Provide support to state agencies to cover the equipment and payment processing changes to accept SNAP at farmers markets.
- Provide additional funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program — an initiative that invests in local and regional food systems to help make them more resilient; and
- Provide funding to support equitable access to agricultural land so farmers can afford to grow food for their communities.
Let’s not waste the opportunity to align the 2023 farm bill with the ground realities of our community-based food systems.
Maureen McNamara Best is executive director of the Roanoke-based nonprofit Local Environmental Agriculture Project, co-lead of the statewide Virginia Fresh Match Network and an officer of the Virginia Food System Council Board. She also is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studying obesity and the food system. Contact her at: Maureen@leapforlocalfood.org