In Wisconsin, SNAP-Ed is helping low-income consumers feel more comfortable getting to and shopping at farmers markets, by providing resources before they arrive and after they get there.
“How people show up to and shop at their market is a story that doesn’t often get told.” When FoodWIse Healthy Communities Coordinator Meg Kilkenny talks about the Milwaukee Farmers Market Coalition, she shares how access to healthy, local foods is a process of engaging with our neighbors. While markets have been community mainstays for local produce, they have also been transformed as spaces of leisure – more a daytrip for delicacies than a weekly stop for groceries.
Helping low-income consumers feel comfortable with this shift has been a challenge. Those who might live near a market may decide to invest a great deal of time to trek across town to a commercial grocery store instead. This action takes their purchasing power out of the nearby community and away from hardworking farmers.
Fondy Farmers Market, a neighborhood mainstay for over 100 years, serves the community as a source of fresh produce on the northside of Milwaukee. As the first Wisconsin market to accept SNAP, Fondy recognized an important disparity in who was welcome and had access to local, fresh produce. The Milwaukee Farmers Market Coalition worked to to support inclusivity at the markets, to include entrepreneurs and low-income consumers throughout the city.
In the Coalition, FoodWIse, funded by SNAP-Ed, offers important support in marketing and outreach. Online resources such as Milwaukee Farmers Market maps, developed in collaboration with Hunger Task Force, help consumers know what to expect before stopping at the market. When they arrive onsite, signage clarifies where and how to use benefits. Banners and flags function as welcome signs to low-income consumers, supporting the mission to make markets more inclusive.
FoodWise also offers technical assistance in the growth of markets accepting SNAP benefits. At the end of the 2019 market season, consumers could use their SNAP benefits at nine locations throughout Milwaukee. As plans for the 2020 season started alongside the COVID-19 outbreak, the focus became how markets could welcome consumers safely. With community health at stake providing nutritious foods became an even higher priority. The Coalition offered advice on operations protocol and signs to inform vendors and visitors on expectations of safe shopping. Meeting every other week rather than every other month, bringing in state and local health departments, these efforts led to a successful season.
SNAP sales at farmers markets in Milwaukee County totaled $73,000 in 2019 and increased by 47% for the 2020 season for a total of $107,000. Tracking SNAP sales at markets over the years is how the Milwaukee Farmers Market Coalition to measures success. The goal is increasing awareness and fostering a culture of inclusivity that all nutrition benefits and all shoppers are welcome. This sale increase also illustrates that consumers had confidence in the safety of outdoor markets and the freshness of their produce. Consumers found ways to connect despite the need for distance.
Additional support for access by low-income consumers came through a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. This grant supported five neighborhood markets – Fondy, Greenfield, Riverwest, Shorewood and Tosa – in piloting the Milwaukee Market Match. Nutrition incentives such as Match doubles spending power up to $20 a day.
Programs like these stretch the consumers’ dollar, increase the individual intake of fruits and vegetables, and keep that spending in the community with local farmers. Such incentives break harmful cycles and begin new beneficial ones.
Looking forward, efforts to coordinate and standardize token systems, as well as continue the reach of those accepting benefits, will be a priority. As the 2020 season wraps up, the uncertainty of the next one comes with a clarity that the health and well-being of a neighborhood comes from many factors.
This year in particular, “Markets offer a community space that has been grieved with the loss of other events like festivals throughout Milwaukee’s summer,” Kilkenny explained.
With ease of using benefits, as well as an invitation that all are welcome, communities of wellness will take root and grow in these vibrant grounds of Milwaukee.
Kathryn Boryc Smock, MPH
State Program Manager for FoodWIse (a SNAP-Ed and EFNEP funded program)
University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension