Linda Rawson looks forward to picking out fresh green onions, raspberries and tomatoes at Minneapolis' farmers markets each summer — food she likely wouldn't be able to afford without the help of an increasingly popular statewide program.
Market Bucks, which offers incentives to low-income Minnesotans to buy food from farmers markets, is expanding this spring. The program narrowly escaped the state's chopping block last year and ended 2021 with a new record of participants.
"I think it makes us all healthier," said Rawson, 66, of Minneapolis, who lost her job at an assisted living facility a year ago. "These are tough times."
Minnesotans who qualify for federal food stamps are eligible for the state program, which matches up to $10 in food stamp purchases with $10 in Market Bucks, enabling them to buy $20 of eligible food at farmers markets.
More than 17,000 people used the Market Bucks program last year, up from 13,000 in 2020 — mirroring an influx in Minnesotans using food stamps, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That number has risen from an average of about 413,000 recipients each month in 2020 to more than 445,000 monthly in 2021.
The increase could reflect both a growing need for food aid, as soaring rents and high inflation stress low-income residents, and improvement in the state's outreach and access to the program. People who qualify for food stamps also received more money when that program was expanded last year, raising the average monthly benefit per person from $157 in 2020 to $175, as part of federal emergency COVID-19 relief.
Starting in May, Minnesotans who qualify for the Market Bucks program will get extra money to buy food specifically from local farmers. The state landed a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that matches the state funding, doubling Market Bucks' budget and supporting the program's costs. It will provide $20 worth of Market Bucks for every $10 in food stamps spent at farmers markets.
"This is another opportunity to build access" to food, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group that runs Market Bucks.
More than 80 farmers markets participate in the Market Bucks program, with 60% of them outside the metro area, stretching from Willmar to Grand Rapids. Market Bucks is also available in the winter through April at 28 winter farmers markets.
In Duluth, more than 200 households used Market Bucks last year, a record number in recent years, said Evan Flom, manager for two Duluth farmers markets and the recently launched Community Action Duluth's mobile market.
"There is still a need and a higher level of food insecurity," Flom said. "Local and healthy foods are important to anybody — it doesn't matter your income bracket."
Minnesotans on food stamps are coping with the same problems affecting all grocery shoppers during the COVID pandemic: rising food costs and unprecedented supply-chain disruptions. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of local farmers, who are less affected by issues hitting global suppliers.
"SNAP money is like anything else. If the prices are high [in a grocery store], then they can buy less," Moriarty said. "But with this program, there's a more ready supply."
'A good investment'
Besides boosting access to locally grown vegetables and fruits for low-income residents, Market Bucks also helps increase sales for local farmers, spurring $1 million in economic activity in 2021, according to Hunger Solutions.
The program was at risk of losing its state funding last year, when some Republican legislators said it couldn't compete with other priorities. But the Legislature took action in the special session, fully funding the $325,000 program in the two-year budget. Market Bucks has received state aid every year since 2015.
Considering what a small part of the state's budget the program is, Moriarty said, "and how much good it does, it's a great investment."
The Food Group in New Hope, formerly the Emergency Foodshelf Network, has a mobile market that sells produce year-round at Twin Cities subsidized housing complexes. Many of its customers, some of whom use Market Bucks, don't have ready transportation or easy access to fresh produce.
Rawson doesn't have a car and takes the bus to the Lyndale and Mill City farmers markets once a week during the summer. She said she looks forward to browsing the eclectic mix of vendors, scoping out herbs and fresh vegetables — fresher, higher-quality foods, she said, than you might get at a grocery store.
"You never know what you're going to find," she said. "I'm so glad they didn't get rid of it. I think it's just a fabulous program."
To find a participating market, go to hungersolutions.org. For help applying for SNAP or getting additional food resources, contact the Minnesota Food Helpline at 1-888-711-1151.