By Trey Couvillion and Sarah Procopio
LSU Manship School News Service
For Earlene Watts, walking to a farmers market with her 15-year-old son has become a weekend ritual. The LSU student and mother of four has visited the downtown Red Stick Farmers Market every week for seven years and counting, delighted that farmers there let her use state assistance to buy more nutritional food.
“We’re are able to shop for healthy items, and I am able to teach my kids how they can benefit from being healthy,” she said.
Watts is one of 1,300 people who use state food assistance to buy fresh produce and other products at farmers markets in Baton Rouge, thanks in part to grants that provide spending matches to increase their purchasing power.
But the program is far from universal: Only a few farmers markets in the state accept benefits from the Louisiana Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as payment, and some do not provide a dollar-for-dollar matching component like the one where Watts shops.
Farmers markets in Lafayette, Covington, Lake Charles and Hammond do not take the benefits, formerly known as food stamps, while all the vendors at markets in Delcambre, Ruston, Baton Rouge and New Orleans do. Other markets, like in Shreveport and Mandeville, fall somewhere in between, with only some of the vendors accepting the state benefits.
The Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, a Baton Rouge-based non-profit that supports farmers, has offered a dollar-for-dollar matching program for a decade. It matches up to $10 in purchases made by a SNAP cardholder at any of its farmers markets in the Baton Rouge area.
The Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans receives grants from the U.S. Agriculture Department to match up to $20 of purchases by SNAP participants, said Kathryn Parker, the market’s executive director. The market’s website reports that the matching program has increased SNAP purchases by more than threefold since 2008.
Last year, 1,801 people used SNAP cards at the Crescent City Farmers Market, spending $35,011.
Before she became a regular, Watts said she had no idea the Red Stick market accepted SNAP benefits or offered the match.
“I don’t think a lot of people were aware of the SNAP program, and so we were still shopping at stores that we normally shop at,” Watts said. “Once I understood we could be here and shop for healthy items, I just started telling everybody that I knew who used what I use to aid to their kids and keep them healthy.”
The Baton Rouge matching program costs $20,000 to $25,000 a year with an average of 90 customers per month. Louisiana Healthcare Connections, a statewide health insurance provider to those who qualify for Medicaid, began sponsoring the dollar-matching program in September.
“One of the primary social determinants of health is access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods,” Kendra Case, the chief operating officer of the company, said. “But the barriers to that access are considerable, which is why we need strong partners who share our mission.”
One area of concern that comes across the healthcare company’s radar is food insecurity. The U.S. Agriculture Department defines that as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”
According to data available on The BR City Key website, in 2016, 17.8 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish was identified as “food insecure.” That number is 5 percentage points higher than the national average.
Case said that investing in the program helps her company address the problems at the grassroots level by alerting more SNAP recipients to the match.
On the flip side of the market, there are small farmers like Eric Morrow from Ponchatoula. Morrow has set up shop at the Baton Rouge farmers market for 21 years and is happy to sell his tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplants and other produce to SNAP users.
“That’s what’s important, bringing new clients in,” Morrow said.
Morrow said he sees a lot of people taking advantage of the money-matching program, and that its benefits impact the community in a deeper way.
“It brings people down here that would never come down to downtown Baton Rouge, and see all that’s happening down here,” Morrow said. “This is a great event for everyone. It builds community, friendships.”
Darlene Adams Rowland, head of marketing and development for Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, added that the matching program is a win-win-win for her group, the farmers and the SNAP recipients.
“This is the perfect way for us to live out our mission,” she said. “It allows us to provide those incentives for healthy eating. But at the same time, it puts dollars back in the pockets of small farmers.”
Watts also said the program has an impact beyond the dollars and cents she saves.
“It adds to the culture and the diversity of the people who are coming, but it also adds to my family because I am able to come and get things that we need that we probably wouldn’t have been able to get,” Watts said. “It adds to what we already have and sometimes that’s very little.”