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Berkshire Agricultural Ventures fundraiser aims to expand access to farmers markets for SNAP recipients

Josh Landes

This month, a Berkshire County nonprofit that supports local farms is holding a fundraiser to make Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP – dollars go farther at farmers markets in the region.

Ciana Barnaba is a program manager at Berkshire Agricultural Ventures who manages its nascent Market Match Fund.

“Last year, we launched the Market Match Fund really as a pilot project to test the effectiveness of centralizing fundraising efforts to support SNAP matching programs prior to BAV’s involvement," she told WAMC. "This was actually kind of a one-off activity that farmers markets were doing independently of each other, and it really caused a lot of issues for them. And so, we decided, after hearing a number of concerns from farmers market managers and also from farmers who really benefit from SNAP revenue at the farmers markets, we decided to take it upon ourselves to implement a centralized kind of fundraising support program for these markets.”

The first pass at the program in 2022 was a success.

“We ended up fundraising over $117,000, and $116,500, was distributed across 10 different Berkshire-area farmers markets," said Barnaba. "So, we provided grants to those 10 markets, so that enabled them to do that dollar-for-dollar SNAP match, and it was just huge. I mean, in terms of the impact that that turned into, it was over 4,500 SNAP individuals utilized the program across the county, and our efforts translated into over $200,000 in vendor sales.”

In fiscal year 2020, an average of $88 million in SNAP benefits was distributed to over 730,000 people every month in Massachusetts. The USDA estimates that between 2019 and 2021, over 8% of households in the commonwealth experienced food insecurity. A 2018 USDA profile of the 1st Massachusetts congressional district, which includes Berkshire County, showed that 17% of households received SNAP benefits. The profile underscored the sharp disparity between residents in the region, with households receiving SNAP benefits reporting a median income of $19,000 and households not participating in the program taking home a median income of almost $69,000. Over half of the 49,000 households in the 2018 profile on SNAP benefits included a person with disabilities, and over 40% included children under 18 years of age.

“SNAP, I think, is an aspect of farmers markets and of local food sales that isn't talked about," Barnaba told WAMC. "I think farmers markets are often perceived as kind of an event for out-of-towners, or it's a place where people who can afford to shop can go and kind of splurge on this kind of gourmet, locally produced food, but really, farmers farm to feed people, all people. So having SNAP at the farmers markets makes farmers markets a more welcoming space. And I think part of our efforts, especially with this March campaign, is to grow the public awareness that yes, SNAP is accepted at farmers markets, and it's a significant part of farmers’ sales too. It can be up to 60% of a given farmer’s sales.”

This year, BAV is trying to expand on the program with a $15,000 fundraising campaign for March alone that will be matched dollar-for-dollar for a total goal of $30,000.

“$30,000, really, in terms of what our markets need is- It's a drop in the bucket,” Barnaba said.

Barnaba says the fact that the fundraiser has synched up with the federal government decreasing SNAP benefits to pre-pandemic levels wasn’t actually planned.

“But it does really just kind of stress how important SNAP matching programs and just support for SNAP and access to locally produced food is just even more important now," she told WAMC. "There are going to be so many individuals and families struggling really to feed themselves and their families. And so really, something that we've been saying as part of this campaign but that's really true, is that every dollar counts. You know, BAV’s grants allow farmers markets to match SNAP dollars, dollar for dollar up to $30. So, we are taking $30 and turning it into $60 that people can spend on locally produced food. So, we're really stretching limited budgets even further. And again, it's an unfortunate, but timely moment across the U.S. So, again, it just makes this program all the more important going into market season this year.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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