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At the farmers market... with food stamps

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

April Segura is a regular at the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market in Lincoln, Neb. On a warm, May afternoon, the single, stay-at-home mother of three greeted friends and acquaintances while strolling past tables of lettuce and herbs. She hoped to find more asparagus for sale.

“I love asparagus season and it’s probably about to be over,” said Segura, holding two grocery bags with one arm and her one-year-old son, Jeriel, with the other.

Segura is a local food fanatic and a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipient. She depends on around $500 each month in benefits to help cover the cost of food. As much as she can, Segura uses that money at the farmers market to buy food that would otherwise be hard to afford.

“I wouldn’t want to just get crap food,” Segura said. “For me and my kids, I realize we need to be eating healthy and we try to eat as organic as we can and local as we can.”

About 47 million Americans are enrolled in SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. Most of the money is spent at grocery stores, but an increasing amount is finding its way to small, local markets.

In 2008, only 753 local farms and farmers markets across the country accepted SNAP benefits, which are redeemed through plastic debit cards. Last year it was 3,214. Customers like Segura pushed SNAP spending at farms and markets to more than $16 million in 2012.

But that’s hardly a drop in the bucket when you consider government spending on SNAP reached $78 billion last year, more than double pre-recession levels.

And that spending is in the bulls-eye as Congress debates the five-year farm bill. The question is not so much whether to cut SNAP, but by how much. Right now, states can automatically enroll people in SNAP if they qualify for other social programs, like heating or cash assistance. The House and Senate are each considering plans that would save money by rolling those policies back, but to different degrees.

The farm bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate would trim an estimated $4 billion over 10 years.  Meanwhile, a different version of the farm bill in the Republican-controlled House would cut SNAP by $20 billion.

The economic impact of such cuts is part of the consideration. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each dollar of SNAP produces $1.79 in economic activity.

Most of that money does not go to farmers markets, however. The vast majority of SNAP dollars enter the economy through large supermarkets and superstores.

 “By the end, the farmer has seen 19 cents of that dollar,” said Megan Jackson, manager of the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market. “Here the farmer sees 99 cents of that dollar.”

For small growers who don’t receive the same government support as commodity farmers, Jackson said, SNAP is like an indirect subsidy.

Customer April Segura said that’s one reason she chooses the farmers market.

“You can come to the market and you can support everyone that you know and want to support,” Segura said.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.