After record year, Market Bucks program for low-income Minnesotans expands this spring

Linda Rawson looks forward to picking fresh scallions, raspberries and tomatoes at Minneapolis farmers’ markets each summer — foods she probably couldn’t afford without the help of an increasingly popular program at statewide.

Market Bucks, which provides incentives for low-income Minnesotans to buy food at farmers’ markets, is expanding this spring. The program narrowly escaped the state chopping block last year and ended 2021 with a new attendance record.

“I think it makes us all healthier,” said Rawson, 66, of Minneapolis, who lost his job at an assisted living facility a year ago. “These are difficult times.”

Minnesotans who qualify for federal food stamps are eligible for the state program, which matches up to $10 in food stamp purchases with $10 in Market Bucks, allowing them to buy $20 worth of food eligible for farmers’ markets.

More than 17,000 people used the Market Bucks program last year, up from 13,000 in 2020 — reflecting an influx of Minnesotans using food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This number has grown from an average of around 413,000 recipients each month in 2020 to over 445,000 per month in 2021.

The increase could reflect both a growing need for food aid, as soaring rents and high inflation stress low-income residents, and the state’s improved reach and access to program. People eligible for food stamps also received more money when this program was expanded last year, raising the average monthly benefit per person from $157 in 2020 to $175, as part of federal COVID-19 emergency.

Starting in May, Minnesotans who qualify for the Market Bucks program will receive extra money to purchase food specifically from local farmers. The state landed a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that matches state funding, doubling Market Bucks’ budget and supporting program costs. It will provide $20 in Market Bucks for every $10 in food stamps spent at farmers markets.

“This is another opportunity to strengthen access” to food, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group that operates Market Bucks.

More than 80 farmers’ markets participate in the Market Bucks program, with 60% outside the metro area, stretching from Willmar to Grand Rapids. Market Bucks is also available in the winter through April at 28 winter farmers’ markets.

In Duluth, more than 200 households used Market Bucks last year, a record number in recent years, said Evan Flom, director of two Duluth Farmers’ Markets and the recently launched Community Action Duluth Mobile Market.

“There is still a need and a higher level of food insecurity,” Flom said. “Local and healthy food is important for everyone – no matter your income bracket.”

Minnesotans on food stamps face the same issues affecting all grocery shoppers during the COVID pandemic: rising food costs and unprecedented supply chain disruptions. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of local farmers, who are less affected by the issues plaguing global suppliers.

“SNAP money is like anything else. If prices are high [in a grocery store], then they can buy less,” Moriarty said. “But with this program, there is a more ready supply.

“A good investment”

In addition to boosting access to locally grown vegetables and fruits for low-income residents, Market Bucks also helps increase sales for local farmers, driving $1 million in economic activity in 2021, according to Hunger Solutions.

The program was in danger of losing public funding last year when some Republican lawmakers said it couldn’t compete with other priorities. But the legislature took action in the special session, fully funding the $325,000 program in the two-year budget. Market Bucks has received state aid every year since 2015.

Considering how small a portion of the state budget the program represents, Moriarty said, “and how good it does, it’s a great investment.”

The New Hope Food Group, formerly Emergency Foodshelf Network, has a mobile market that sells produce year-round in Twin Cities subsidized housing complexes. Many of his customers, some of whom use Market Bucks, don’t have transportation ready or easy access to fresh produce.

Rawson doesn’t have a car and takes the bus to Lyndale and Mill City Farmers’ Markets once a week during the summer. She said she was looking forward to browsing the eclectic mix of vendors, looking for fresh herbs and vegetables – fresher and higher quality foods, she said, than you could get at a grocery store. .

“You never know what you’re going to find,” she said. “I’m so glad they didn’t get rid of it. I think it’s just a fabulous program.”

To find a participating market, go to Hungersolutions.org. For help applying for SNAP or getting additional food resources, contact the Minnesota Food Helpline at 1-888-711-1151.

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