The Columbia City Farmers Market bustled in the early evening as people stocked up on fruits and veggies, sampled icy apple cider and mulled over mead.
The market is a community space, full of familiar faces and regular customers. Nora Jenkins counts herself among that number.
Jenkins didn’t always get to eat as many fresh vegetables as she — or her doctor — wanted. She lives with diabetes and kidney problems that brought her energy level down and kept her at home.
But things have changed.
“I could run,” she said excitedly. “Party!”
Jenkins uses Fresh Bucks, a program that matches money on EBT cards from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at 30 participating farmers markets and stands in King County.
Prior to November 2017, a participant could match $10 of their SNAP benefits at a market. Now, there are no restrictions on how much of SNAP benefits can be matched with Fresh Bucks with the caveat that Fresh Bucks are allocated in $2 increments.
Jenkins often buys green beans, carrots and fruits. She always has an eye out for collard greens — a little onion, garlic and black pepper later, Jenkins has a nutritious side that tastes great and has improved her quality of life.
“I advise anybody to come shop here,” Jenkins said.
If City Councilmember Mike O’Brien gets his way, more people will.
O’Brien wants to expand the program to include people who make too much money to qualify for food benefits but still struggle to afford fresh produce. These are working families that have to make choices between food that keeps them healthy and other life essentials, like gas for their cars and school supplies. As the cost of living in Seattle and the surrounding region continues to rise, those numbers are growing.
According to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the percentage of households in Seattle grappling with food insecurity more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, jumping from six to 13 percent in just three years.
To pay for the expansion, O’Brien has proposed tapping funds from the Sweetened Beverage Tax. The City Council passed the tax in 2017 with the idea of increasing the cost of drinks that are linked to obesity and diabetes and funneling them into programs that improve quality of life. They hoped to help low-income and marginalized communities that are more likely to buy those beverages and suffer from the associated diseases.
Opening the door to the Fresh Bucks program for families like these would make a big difference, O’Brien said.
Som and Kevin Porter agree.
After they pay rent and the bills, there isn’t always anything left over for produce, Kevin Porter said. He craves melons, while Som pines for plums.
“We haven’t gotten fruits in a couple of weeks,” Kevin said.
They volunteer with Got Green, a homegrown organization that advocates for food and climate justice for marginalized communities that would be targeted by the proposed Fresh Bucks expansion. Organizer Tanika Thompson recruited them.
Thompson is quiet, a little shy around reporters — but fully dedicated to getting Fresh Bucks into the hands of community members.
She hopes to use the tools at hand to bring more members into the fold by connecting with households that already qualify for a program that gets them a substantial break on their utility bills. City officials have been pushing to expand membership in the Utility Discount Program (UDP) since 2014 when they discovered that only a fraction of potentially eligible households had enrolled.
If the Fresh Bucks expansion carries, using UDP enrollment to offer Fresh Bucks would be a good first step to target families in need and let them know what their options are.
“Being able to tell people that hope is on the way is the best part of this job,” Thompson said.
The Fresh Bucks program has another major benefit, too. In addition to helping people get fresh produce, it also helps the people who grow it.
Mackenzie Beyer works for the farm Growing Washington, which has a stand at the Columbia City Farmers Market. He calls Fresh Bucks “perfect justice.”
“It’s free money to buy healthy foods,” Beyer said, and it goes “full circle” to benefit farmers.
Customers go to the manager tent at one end of the farmers market and withdraw money from their EBT cards, which are represented by silver dollar-sized wooden chits. Those are matched with Fresh Bucks, rectangular pieces of paper that vaguely resemble currency.
Beyer said that he felt like he’d seen an increase in the amount of Fresh Bucks showing up at the Growing Washington Stand. Corinne Monaco, who was breaking down the Manager Tent at the end of the market with colleague Rachel Vierstra, agreed.
The market was breaking records with EBT making up roughly 20 percent of sales, Monaco estimated.
The program expansion had another, less visible effect. Before, a customer could get $10 matched at a farmer’s market through the Fresh Bucks program. That didn’t preclude them from getting another $10 in matching funds at another market in the same week.
“People no longer have to travel to multiple farmers markets,” Monaco said. “People say, ‘Thank goodness, I can come to my local market.’”
While the concept of getting more produce into the hands of low-income people isn’t controversial, the mechanism is, especially if the city does it O’Brien’s way.
The business community opposed the Sweetened Beverage Tax, which was technically levied on distributors, not customers, but still results in higher prices at the register. Retailers posted signs at the checkout counter describing the tax in order to shift the blame for higher prices away from themselves. Costco included the tax as a separate line item on its price tags.
Although the city has commissioned a report from researchers at the University of Washington to study the impact of the tax on consumption, results are not expected for some time. A report by the advisory committee that makes recommendations on how to use the tax revenues, however, shows that it is on pace to raise considerably more money than originally expected.
When the council passed the tax, staff estimated that it would garner $15 million in 2018. Six months in, the advisory board reported in August, it had raised more than $10 million. It’s now on track to top $20 million.
The city had made a conservative estimate on potential revenue, O’Brien said, but given that the tax was meant to discourage consumption of sugary beverages, it may indicate that people aren’t changing their purchasing habits.
“One, it means we have extra revenue,” O’Brien said. “Two, people are consuming sugary beverages at a higher rate than anticipated, which means we have more work to do to get our community to be healthier.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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