SARASOTA, Fla. — Karen Maxey, 69, grew up on a farm eating fresh fruits and vegetables and maintained that healthy diet throughout her life. But in 2007, the economy took a toll on her personal and professional life; she lost her real estate business and her home, and then her marriage collapsed. She went back to school and graduated with a business degree at age 65, only to find her job search was in vain.
And so, though no fault of her own, she wound up a recipient of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – known as SNAP – which supplies her with $64 a month for food.
“So many seniors are really suffering,” said Maxey, who was thrilled when she found out that at some Florida farmer’s markets, her benefits could be doubled, up to $20, to enable her eat healthy, Florida-grown foods under a program called Fresh Access Bucks. Some markets even double that per shopper, per market day, allowing SNAP recipients to purchase $40 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally.
“I know I can get the most nutrients and spend the least amount of money to buy fresh,” Maxey said. “This program is phenomenal – because of it and this grant, some of us, at least we can have something.”
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Agent Robert Kluson is trying to get the word out to farmers markets and low-income residents around the state to participate in Fresh Access Bucks, which began with support from a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Block grant, along with Jane’s Trust, a non-profit foundation.
“It gives more business for small farmer’s markets and helps those folks who need it,” said Kluson, who works in the UF/IFAS Extension office in Sarasota County.
So far, 21 farmers markets in 12 Florida counties opted to participate in the program. More than 2,800 shoppers have taken advantage of the program, making nearly 8,000 SNAP transactions in the last 18 months from at least 150 participating farmers, according to the Florida Organic Growers, which oversees the Fresh Access Bucks program.
“Of the approximately $6 billion in SNAP benefits- for more than 3 million people – that flow into Florida, .018 percent is used to purchase food from the state’s farmers,” said Carmen Franz, Community Food Project Coordinator for Florida Organic Growers. “People in the state’s underserved communities could substantially benefit from enhanced access to affordable, Florida-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, providing a real immediate benefit to themselves, farmers and local communities.”
UF/IFAS is just one of half a dozen partners in the program. Others include: Wholesome Wave, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Farmers Market Coalition, Florida Department of Children and Families, and local county health departments.
“It has been extremely well-received by the community,” said Linda Wilson, manager of the Venice Farmers Market in Sarasota County. She received a portion of Florida Organic Growers Specialty Crop Block grant which allows her market to match up to $20 a day to SNAP beneficiaries for the purchase of Florida grown produce.
Lee Perron, who runs the Englewood Farmer’s Market said the program has been so successful there, they ran out of grant money in just a few months, but are applying for more. In addition, he said local agencies, food banks, the local bus and school systems are helping to tell those in need that their dollars can go farther at the farmer’s markets.
“The perception that it’s more expensive than a regular market – which isn’t true – can keep people away,” Perron said. “Once you double dollars, that perception is taken away.”
Maxey, who is so enthusiastic about the program that she volunteers at the Venice Farmer’s Market each week, said she has a message for the person who created the program and those who adopted it at their farmers markets.
“I am very proud of them and I thank them.”
Statewide, the farmers markets that participate are:
Alachua County 441 Farmers Market
Brevard County Farmers Market
Dania Beach PATCH Market
Las Olas Farmers Market
Punta Gorda Farmers Market
Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach
Atlantic Beach Mid-Week Market
Palafox Farmers Market in Pensacola
Sweetwater Organic Community Farm and Market in Tampa
Frenchtown Heritage Market in Tallahassee
Upper East Side Farmers Market in Miami
SW Community Farmers Market in Miami
Verde Gardens Farmers Market in Homestead
Urban Oasis Brownsville Mobile Farmstand in Miami
Miami Springs Farmers Market
Amelia Earhart Farmers Market in Miami
Bee Heaven Farm at Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market in Miami
St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market
Englewood Farmers Market
Venice Farmers Market
Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market
By Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, 352-294-3302, email@example.com
Sources: Carmen Franz, 904-624 – 1532, Carmen@foginfo.org
Linda Wilson, 941-234-6321, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Perron, 310-308-0251, email@example.com