For someone struggling to feed themselves or their family, it can be hard to eat healthy. Fresh produce is expensive. The offerings from food pantries or soup kitchens are often canned meals or bread items.
An incentive program in New Hampshire is working to change that, by helping low income individuals get their hands on fresh food at farmers markets.
At one farmer's market in Dover, a regular customer, Tony Kenney, glides into the small parking lot on his bike just before the market opens. He’s beaming a smile and sweating in the sun.
He just biked for 45 minutes from his home in South Berwick, Maine, and goes straight for a table run by Ashley Cooper, who works for a local nonprofit. Kenney hands her an EBT card—the debit card that the government uses to give out food stamps. She slides it, and counts out a small heap of wooden tokens.
Kenney’s using a program called the Granite State Market Match. When food stamps recipients come to farmer's markets, the program will match, dollar for dollar, whatever they spend on fruits and veggies. Ten dollars in food stamps will get you twenty dollars of tomatoes.
“I’m a firm believer in this program, because this is where it got me," Kenney says, standing fit and tan over his bike. "If you saw my pictures before, you wouldn’t recognize me." In 2012, he had a hernia, and while he was laid up in the hospital, he gained weight. Kenney tried to lose it by eating better and biking everywhere he went. But last year, he was hit by a car, and he can’t go back to work until he recovers.
Kenney’s on food stamps now and still wants to eat healthy, but can’t afford fresh greens anymore. That’s where the tokens come in. The market match program operates at farmer’s markets all across the state, and is funded by a combination of charitable donations and a federal grant.
Jill Hall, Director of Programs at Seacoast Eat Local, one of the nonprofits that runs the token tables at markets, says the program is about knocking down financial barriers to healthy eating.
“All people deserve the same access to fresh, local, and healthy food, no matter where you live or what kind of income you receive,” she says.
It's about knocking down social barriers, too, by introducing low-income people to their local farming community. “It’s a really personal thing, to come up to someone at a table and tell them what your income is or isn’t…it’s a very intimate thing, and we want to make sure people feel comfortable doing that with us," Hall says.
Farmers, for their part, appreciate receiving those wooden tokens, which they cash in for real money. The owner of Coppal House Farm, John Hutton, estimates the market match program gives him a 25 percent bump in revenue. “As a vendor, I saw a huge spike in business every time they did market match. It was phenomenal. People were buying good stuff.”
That money may not always be there, though. Congress will decide whether to reauthorize funding in 2018, and the program's administrators are not sure if they will. Helen Costello helps run the program through the New Hampshire Food Bank, and spoke to me by phone from a conference in Chicago. “[I] just got out of a policy session about the farm bill," she said, "and we can’t count on anything. But it doesn’t mean we don’t continue doing the work to keep it moving forward.”
Back in Dover, Kenney, with tokens in hand, winds his way through the market, making his usual stops, including a farm stand brimming with basil, tomatoes, and onions. “She has my onions here," he says, picking through this week's crop. "These are fresh."
After what he’s been through, with the help of good food and good neighbors, Kenney’s almost back on his feet. He’s certainly back on his bike.