Every Friday afternoon throughout the growing season, families stop by Zenger Farm on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., to pick up their weekly share of fresh-picked organic produce. Depending on what’s ripe, their baskets might include fava beans or fennel, tomatoes or turnips—10 items or more in all.
Traditionally, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs like this one have required customers to shell out hundreds of dollars at the start of a season. That up-front commitment helps small farmers make ends meet, but it’s a deal breaker for less affluent customers. Yet more than half of the customers at Zenger Farm are low-income. Instead of paying in advance for all 23 weeks of the season, they pay $25 each Friday by swiping their SNAP benefit card. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; it’s known, more colloquially, as the food stamp program.
Across the country, efforts to unite CSA and SNAP are sprouting up at farms that sell direct to customers. “We get calls every week from farmers who want to be able to do this,” says Bryan Allen, assistant farm manager at Zenger Farm. “It’s definitely on their radar.”
A commitment to food justice helps to explain that interest, but simple economics plays a big role, too. One in seven Americans receives SNAP benefits. These consumers are developing a taste for fresh produce, with a push from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand SNAP recipients’ access to farmer’s markets. From 2007 to 2011, SNAP purchases at farmer’s markets grew from $1.6 million to more than $11 million. SNAP recipients can spend that money on CSA programs only at farms that register to accept SNAP payments. (According to a USDA spokesperson, the agency doesn’t have a count of authorized CSAs.)
Zenger Farm, a nonprofit farm and education center, began piloting a SNAP program in 2011. To share lessons with other farms, it has published an online guide to best practices. In February, it held a webinar that drew nearly 100 attendees from across the country.
One lesson that people at Zenger Farm have learned is that they need to educate consumers about the CSA model. “The first year we tried this, we didn’t have an up-front conversation with [SNAP] customers,” Allen says. As a result, 35 percent of participants dropped out during the growing season. That’s a big hit for a small farm. The following year, Zenger Farm took more time to explain its model and also began requiring SNAP users to put down a $50 (two-week) deposit. Customers get the full deposit back if they collect at least 21 of their 23 weekly shares. After the deposit was introduced, the dropout rate fell to 15 percent.
Before farmers can accept SNAP payments, they have to meet certain eligibility criteria. They also have to be ready to live with a slower cash flow. According to current federal rules, SNAP funds can’t be used to pay for food in advance. USDA guidelines explain the reasoning behind this pay-as-you-go rule: “Because SNAP clients have limited means and resources, they can neither afford nor risk payment for an entire growing season at the season’s start.”
That’s debatable, Allen argues. “Low-income people are certainly capable of budgeting their own money,” he says.
In any event, low-income consumers seem to enjoy the chance to try the novel items that show up in their CSA baskets. Recipe swapping is a common practice among CSA customers, who often welcome help in figuring out what to do with a rutabaga or a celeriac. “There’s a lot of community-building at the farm around preparing fresh food,” Allen notes.