When the world shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to food pantries and assistance programs to make ends meet. It wasn’t just the toilet paper that disappeared: it was our jobs, our families, and our safety nets. When it came to food, people had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. They sought out more direct forms of access at farmers markets and farm stands, and started their own gardens, whether in backyards, patios, or apartment windows.
But what many people don’t know is that SNAP benefits can help bridge the gap between relying on the store and relying on yourself! Since 1973, SNAP participants have been allowed to purchase garden seeds and plants that produce food for human consumption.
Seeds for producing edible plants and starter plants. This includes things like spinach seed, tomato seedlings, and even fruit trees!
Edible food producing roots, bushes, and bulbs. This includes things like seed potatoes, blueberry bushes, asparagus crowns, and onion bulbs.
Seeds and plants used to produce spices for use in cooking. This includes herbs like cilantro and basil seeds and plants.
One challenge might be finding a store that sells seeds and plants and also accepts SNAP benefits. You can use this SNAP retailer locator to find a local store in your community that accepts SNAP. Many grocery stores sell seeds and also have pop-up greenhouses in the spring and summer. Check with them to see if they accept SNAP benefits and when they plan to do their plant sale.
Or, better yet, if you have a farmers market in your community that accepts SNAP, plan a visit when the market is open in early spring to find tons of locally-grown bedding plants. Abundant Montana has a searchable directory of farmers markets across Montana and you can narrow your search using SNAP/EBT as a filter. Many of these markets also accept Double SNAP Dollars. Double SNAP will match your EBT spending up to $20 per day at participating markets, allowing you to stretch your budget further and buy food for today and plants that will provide for weeks to come. Find a Double SNAP Dollars farmers market today and start planning your garden shopping trip!
When visiting a farmers market, tap into the knowledge of a local farmer to get advice about which varieties grow best in your climate, how to plant and care for them, and when to harvest the bounty. If you don’t have a farmers market and are buying plants at the store, you can contact your county’s Master Gardener Program. Or, check out free written gardening guides from Montana State University Extension. They publish MontGuides on everything from growing tomatoes in Montana to harvesting and saving your own seed.
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!
March 3, 2021 By Aly Reynolds
In this installment of Market Success SNAPshots, we caught up with Samantha O’Byrne—founder of the Hamilton nonprofit The O’Hara Commons—about the huge success of her newly added online Local Foods Market. “We designed this market to be like a local foods grocery store experience,” Samantha explains, as vendors provide a variety of produce, meats, baked goods, and dairy products. Customers drive up every Thursday to be hand-delivered goods they purchased online. Alternately, customers can shop at the storefront Sunday through Wednesday, giving the community plenty of opportunity to do their week’s grocery shopping. Since opening in October, the market has seen on average 70 orders a week and $44,200 in gross sales!
The online Local Foods Market began out of plans to expand on the already existing Wednesday Afternoon Farmers Market, which operates from June through September. Samantha and her team had plans in place to add a winter market to follow the summer market, increasing local food access to her community year-round. However, Covid-19 hit and caused plans to shift at the O’Hara Commons. Samantha and her team transitioned to planning for an online model, and they eventually secured funding to install a walk-in fridge to make this model possible.
Despite the setbacks and difficult year, The O’Hara Commons saw huge success in both their Wednesday Afternoon Market and eventually in the opening of their online market. The Wednesday Afternoon Market opened with strict Covid-protocols to keep everyone healthy. “Rather than this having a negative effect on our attendance, in 2020 we saw our foot traffic almost double over the previous season!” Samantha also shared that community members would often line up an hour in advance, with up to 40 people waiting in line.
The support from the community was further displayed in the opening of the online Local Foods Market, as 350 customers are now registered with the online platform. “I have been in this community since 1998. I ran a garden shop for 13 years and then expanded it into what the O’Hara Commons is today. I know a lot of people in the community because of this. However, of the 350 customers, I only know half of them. So it’s really opened up to a new audience,” Samantha reports.
SNAP participants are among this audience served through the market. Samantha has seen the number of SNAP participants nearly double since offering an online market in conjunction with the summer market. The O’Hara Commons also proudly offers Double SNAP Dollars (DSD), where SNAP participants can double their benefits on fresh, local produce. “The extra food that we have been able to get into the community through DSD has been amazing. And people are always shocked when I tell them we match their SNAP benefits up to $20, giving them the opportunity to purchase even more vegetables.” Samantha explains how the online platform has been a huge success for her customer base, making it a convenient way to access local foods year-round.
To ensure the online market’s success, Samantha sought out mentorship from near and far. She reached out to a group that attempted to establish a local food co-op in Hamilton, and they shared with her their lessons learned. A google search also connected Samantha with Red Hills Farm Alliance in Florida, who have been operating an online market for over 10 years. She is so grateful to all the mentorship she received from these individuals; it gave the market extra support to get off the ground. “We didn’t throw all this time and resources at it to watch it fail. We sought out this mentorship to help us do it right, to help it be sustainable.”
Sustainability has been a major focus of the online Local Foods Market. All growers were given the guarantee that the online market will be functioning through March of 2022. “This guarantee is to give them the safeguard and security that we will be a venue for them, and they can plan for a bigger season if they want to, knowing they have us to depend on,” Samantha expresses. The market is happy to provide a year-round service to its growers, helping them build a stronger network of customers to depend on.
The online Local Foods Market is a win for growers and customers alike. The market’s success is a snapshot of a community coming together to build a more resilient local food economy in Hamilton, Montana.
The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center strives to connect local people to local food. Along with operating local farmers markets, they provide educational programming for all ages through demonstration gardens and resource sharing. The O’Hara Commons is grateful to their many partners for making the online Local Foods Market possible, such as the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, BitterrootValley.org (Cobey Williamson), and the City of Hamilton.