SNAP Shares – How and Why?

Periodically, we get an email or a phone call from a farm or organization around the country asking about our SNAP shares: how they work, is the program successful, etc. I thought I’d post my most recent email answering some of those questions. More general information and how you can join (*We have 4 more spots in our 2013 CSA for SNAP members – spread the word!*) can be found on our SNAP Share page.

A brief overview of our SNAP Share program: We offer a small number of shares every year that can be paid for with SNAP benefits (i.e. Food Stamps). Members pay for their share weekly, as legally we can’t accept SNAP benefits as pre-payment. While this isn’t a traditional CSA practice (the purpose of a CSA is to provide the farmer with funds early in the season), it’s ideal for our members. Because of this weekly incremental payment system, we ask for a cash deposit at the beginning of the season as insurance for us – if SNAP members miss a week or two, we take those payments out of their deposit. We’ve offered SNAP Shares successfully since 2011, and look forward to continuing to provide local produce for low income families in our community.

What need did you notice in your community when you decided to offer the SNAP shares (what motivated you to offer them in the first place)?
Margaret and I have both been on SNAP benefits ourselves before, and we have a number of friends that have been or are currently on them. We know from experience that they don’t go very far and that it’s difficult to buy local produce as it’s more expensive and often less accessible. We wanted to offer shares to low income families to make local food easy to find, and we discount them because our shares (CSA shares in general) are just too expensive for families on SNAP benefits.

Did you have others coming to you with interest in a share but not being able to afford it?
We began our CSA and SNAP Share program our very first season in Montana, which was also in the middle of our first year in Montana. We wanted to provide SNAP shares from the get go, and quickly found that few CSAs accept SNAP payments. I think many families and individuals on SNAP benefits don’t even think to look at CSAs as a source of produce until it’s presented (at farmers market, in the grocery/natural food store, in the coop, etc).

How does the donation system for supporting those shares work out for you?
Almost no one donates unless solicited, unfortunately. We sold t-shrits to raise funds last year, and with a couple small donations (all friends of ours), were able to make up for the initial discount we automatically give and drop the price farther. We secured a big donation from a local philanthropist this year, which allows us to cut SNAP shares by almost half, but I don’t think donations are a sustainable way to make up for the discount. We’ve thought about sliding scale shares, but without 10-30% of your members willing to pay top dollar, it doesn’t work. In the future, we’d like to work with Wholesome Wave or a different organization to double SNAP dollars when they’re used with our CSA. They do it farmers markets and the like, and they’re interested in doing it for CSAs, but they’re dependent on funding and not taking new applications at this time.

What hoops did you have to jump through to get involved in the SNAP program in the first place?
Getting certified to accept SNAP benefits is simple. At least it was in Montana. We sent in an application though the MT Dept of Public Health (as a “farm stand” – there is no application for CSAs), and about a month later we had our machine to swipe cards. It’s all free, it’s pretty easy, and you just have to go through your state department (as SNAP is allocated on a state by state basis).

How did you determine how much to discount the SNAP shares from the full price?
Our first season, we discounted shares by 20% because we knew that they were too expensive for SNAP members and decided to just eat that loss. We found that even with that discount, almost all our SNAP members paid with cash or check at the end of the month when their benefits ran out. So the following year we sold t-shirts as a fundraiser to discount them farther (and to make back that 20% loss on our part). It was successful and we were able to discount the shares by slightly more than 20%. We had fewer members paying cash at the end of the month and felt like we were able to offer our shares at an affordable price for low income members. As noted above, I’d like to use a double buck program to cut the share cost in half every year, making the shares truly affordable.

We are very proud to offer our SNAP Shares and truly believe in fresh local food for everyone. If you have other questions about how our shares work, check out our SNAP Share page or get in touch with us directly. The more farms and organizations that can offer affordable and accessible produce to low income families and individuals, the stronger and healthier our community is.

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