It was a drizzly evening at Seattle's Columbia City Farmers Market, but the street was still absolutely packed with neighbors shopping for local products. But not all the customers were shopping with cash. Many don't know this, but the city's farmers markets also accept food stamps, called SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And now through the end of October there is a special promotion to encourage SNAP users to shop fresh and local. It's called Fresh Bucks.
"You use your SNAP food stamp benefits at the farmers market and we give you a $10 fresh fruit and vegetable coupon," says Neighborhood Farmers Market operations manager Julian O'Reilley. "We were able to secure some funding through the City of Seattle and they really wanted to say, 'How can we use this program to really increase the buying power of fresh produce for people?' Really increase the accessibility of the farmers market for local, low income folks."
Julian says you can grab one $10 voucher a day at any of the city's 15 markets.
Single mom of two, Aimee Ubinas, tries to hit up three markets a week. She has been using food stamps for the past two and a half years.
"It's emotional for me because I think people have the wrong perception of what people look like who use food stamps. They have a very twisted view that they think that people are lazy, or what have you, and that's not the truth. I work a full time job and I work hard and I still qualify for food stamps. I'm very grateful and I'm not ashamed of it. I'm the only one in my family who has ever qualified for them. I use them to take care of my children. To feed them healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy whole grains. Not junk food. I don't sell my food stamps. I use them to take care of my family."
Aimee says the farmers market is her solace from life's tough times.
"It's been just a little over a year where we were homeless. It was hard. We were homeless because of domestic violence. So I didn't have a job and I didn't have a place to live. We lived in a hotel and I still came all the way from way far away from here because coming to the farmers market, in a place that I felt was my home, my community, felt really good."
The food stamps can buy anything from produce to meats, cheeses, honey and jams, but the Fresh Bucks are only good for vegetables and fruit, which is perfect for Aimee's family.
"Part of being, in my opinion, a good mother is providing them with fresh, healthy foods from our neighborhood, because it impacts our neighborhood. I think that it's important to be able to show them exactly where your fruits and vegetables come from and who is the farmer. When we come to the farmers market we meet them face to face. We get to know about their families. That's the part that I love. We are part of their family too. They help me take care of my family."
The Fresh Bucks program debuted the second week of July, and Julian says within two weeks the number of SNAP users shopping at the farmer's markets went up 70%.