“When Food Bucks came out at Clark Park, I was on the SNAP benefits,” said Meghan Filoromo of The Food Trust’s Philly Food Bucks program. Filoromo was working at the market at the time.
“It made such a huge difference for what I could purchase,” Filoromo said. “[Before Philly Food Bucks] I was trying to just buy stuff that would last a really long time, and I wasn’t necessarily buying all the best things.”
Food Bucks are distributed to shoppers using SNAP benefits – for every $5 spent on fresh fruits and vegetables at The Food Trust farmers markets, they earn $2 in Food Bucks which can be spent on additional produce. The program was modeled after “Health Bucks,” a New York City health department program offering the same two-for-five deal.
“Just having that way of earning more benefits, basically, or earning these additional fruit and vegetable coupons, made a huge difference for me,” Filoromo said. “I just see the value in these sorts of programs.”
Seven years later, she oversees Philly Food Bucks as the farmers market program manager at The Food Trust.
The Philly Food Bucks program (Food Bucks) reached a milestone this month: $400,000 in redeemed coupons, according to Filoromo.
Food Bucks was started in 2010 and according to an executive report from The Food Trust, correlates with a drastic uptick in the amount of SNAP sales at The Food Trust’s farmers markets. The Food Trust notes that SNAP sales increased more than 375% since Food Bucks were introduced.
Clark Park, which is home to Philadelphia’s oldest year-round farmers market, is also the top farmers market for SNAP sales. According to data found in The Food Trust’s executive report, in 2016 the Clark Park Saturday market brought in about 44% of all SNAP sales at The Food Trust farmers markets and partnering farm stands.
Filoromo and a coworker, Jordan Muse, agreed that there must be a need in the community in order for a farmers market to be successful.
“You can’t just plop a farmers market in a neighborhood and think it’s going to work,” said Muse, external affairs associate at The Food Trust.
Once you’ve identified a need, you have to find the farmers.
“Finding farmers to come to farmers markets is probably our biggest challenge,” Filoromo said.
Gro Intelligence reports that the average age of farmers in the US is 58.3. The aging agricultural workforce makes it a challenge to keep farmers markets operational. The small fruit and vegetable producers that The Food Trust looks for seem to be particularly affected by this international phenomenon.
“It’s impacted the amount of markets we can have from year to year, because we just can’t find the farmers to go to them,” Filoromo said.
And none of that hard work means much if the community in need of produce is financially unable to support their local produce stand at the farmers market.
Dwain Livengood, along with his parents, owns and operates Livengood Family Farm in Lancaster. He sells meat and produce at the Clark Park Saturday market.
“It is a win-win for the market and the customer, as well as the farmer,” Livengood said of the Food Bucks program. “We receive additional sales and sometimes testing, or introductory sales for a produce item that they wouldn’t normally purchase. It’s a regular portion of our customer base. It works pretty seamlessly.”
Filoromo expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s a win-win for farmers and for customers, and I feel like that is what makes us happy – that we’re able to help small farmers, small fruit and vegetable growers, but also connect people to additional produce,” Filoromo said.
The Food Trust’s farmers markets include additional features and services that make them more than just a place to buy fresh food. They also host health screenings, nutrition educators and cooking demonstrations.
“When it comes to farmers markets, and policies, and a lot of work that we do here, we approach it in this comprehensive manner,” Muse said.
Muse explained that The Food Trust sees a benefit to creating “a whole comprehensive set of programs at a small farmers market, that you normally wouldn’t see.”
“The goal is to make it like a community hub, where there’s all of these resources there,” Filoromo said.
In addition to earning Food Bucks by shopping, the coupons can be earned by observing the cooking demonstrations at the markets and are distributed by community organizations such as hospitals, clinics and food pantries.
After seeing promising results last year, Filoromo is hoping that a new wave of SEPTA advertisements will encourage shoppers who benefit from SNAP to take advantage of the Food Bucks program, which runs year-round at The Food Trust’s farmers markets.
-Text, images and video by Caitlyn Heter and Linda Sheppard.