Market success in a SNAP-shot! Hear stories of resilience from on-the-ground market managers who offer Double SNAP Dollars at their market—a program where SNAP recipients double their benefits on fresh, local food!
Community members arrive at the Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market with empty bags and hearts ready to be filled with a sense of community. Vendors greet familiar customers and introduce themselves to new ones, children skip throughout the market in search of scavenger hunt items, and live music fills the air as shoppers stock up on fresh produce. The market is situated in South Billings, where access to local fruits and vegetables is limited. Representing over a decade of collaboration between hospitals, the health department, and other community partners, the Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market works to “make the healthy choice the easy choice” in Yellowstone County.
Behind the Gardeners’ Market, three women, along with many community partners, work hard to make the market a success. Market Manager Eden Sowards, Coalition Manager Melissa Henderson, and Fiscal Coordinator Keely Ehmann took time out of their busy days to talk with the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition—giving us a behind the scenes look at the market!
Food Access Programs
The market focuses on making local food accessible to everyone. Offering food access programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), Double SNAP Dollars, WIC Farm Direct, and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Coupons, as well as working to improve the market’s ADA accessibility, allows even more community members to enjoy local produce and support local growers. “People are very excited about all our payment options, and our community partners are always excited to share these resources with their community,” Eden explains. These strong community partnerships form the fabric of the market: the Adult Resource Alliance attends the market on certain days and informs community members about eligibility for the Senior Coupons, the WIC department distributes WIC Farm Direct checks right at the market, Nutrition Educators sign market-goers up for their incentivized SNAP cooking classes, and the market information booth is a hub of information for the SNAP and Double SNAP Dollars program. In this one central location, market attendees can receive a wealth of information on food access programs! Keely processes SNAP and Double SNAP transactions at the information booth, and she shares how “customers are always surprised and excited when I tell them about the Double SNAP match—it brings customers back each week to spend even more on local produce!”
With nearly $350 spent through food access programming each week alongside credit and cash sales, the market was able to circulate over $24,000 into the local economy over the course of the 2020 market season! 9 in 10 customers also reported they were more likely to eat 5 daily servings of fruit and vegetables because they attended the market. This success occurred despite the challenges brought on by Covid-19. “The pandemic led to a lot of innovation,” Melissa expresses. “We were so grateful that the Governor declared farmers’ and gardeners’ markets as essential services. It allowed us to be one of the first events in Yellowstone county, and being a collaboration between the same partners that were trying to curb the pandemic, we were able to model best practices.” Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market shared these practices widely, helping other public events open with safe practices such as creating barriers for social distancing and monitoring mask wearing. The majority of customers shared that these protocols made them feel safer while shopping at the market.
Two of the biggest challenges the market faced, however, was the impact the pandemic had on fostering community and engaging seniors in food access—both of which are major focal points for the market. The pandemic made it very difficult for seniors to be in public spaces, and the market had to discourage crowds gathering and lingering at the market. “It was really contrary to the community feel of the market that we always strive for,” Eden shares. Despite these setbacks, the market collaborated with community partners to pilot a senior food box program, delivering produce directly to seniors. They also witnessed customers continuing to support the market despite the regulations of “get in and get out.” “The community we’ve fostered over the years helped our market, people were committed to shopping there even under different protocols,” Melissa explains.
Now going on their fourth market day this 2021 season, the market has seen a return of that thriving community feel. Vendors are able to connect more with their customers: “Vendors really care about improving the health of our community and have a passion for the produce they sell, and we get a lot of returning vendors because they love the community atmosphere we provide,” Eden shares. “There are a lot of happy customers and a lot of happy vendors!” Community partners are also able to continue fun activities at the market, such as crafts, educational exercises, and live music, inviting community members to enjoy both the produce and the neighborly atmosphere.
Melissa paints a clear image of the Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market: “You might leave the market with radishes and leafy greens, but you’re also leaving with a tuned up bicycle, or a fun craft that the Master Gardeners helped you make—a sense of community really.”
The Healthy By Design coalition exists through the hard work and collaboration of the Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, RiverStone Health, and many other community partners. The Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market is the longest running, and one of many, Healthy By Design initiatives. The market is grateful for the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program in funding their programming, allowing them to continue this vital work in their community. View the market’s 2020 impact report here, and more information on the market here.