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A federal grant is helping a local farmers market provide fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need.
The Williamsburg Farmers Market received funding totaling $24,480 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Program.
The funding will allow the farmers market to expand its acceptance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program vouchers — sometimes called food stamps — for fresh produce.
“We want everyone in the community to feel part of the Williamsburg Farmers Market family and to have access to good nutrition,” Tom Austin, chairman of the Market board, said in a news release. “This grant will help expand our program.”
The farmers market began accepting SNAP vouchers in 2013 in an effort to expand access to fresh produce among the area’s poor, farmers market manager Tracy Herner said.
The farmers market also instituted a dollar-matching program, where SNAP purchases are matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20.
Herner said other farmers markets in Virginia had instituted similar programs, but without an organizing authority, each market had to find their own means to support the matching programs. In Williamsburg, market leaders sought out community donors and sponsors to keep the program afloat.
The nearly $25,000 in federal funding will support the matching program for fruits and vegetables — which are often more nutritious than packaged produce — for the immediate future.
The funding will be useful, Herner said, as the SNAP matching program had grown each year of its run. The first year in 2013 saw $1,500 in purchases made with SNAP vouchers. That figure increased to $3,500 in 2014. Herner said the market hoped to see $10,000 in SNAP purchases in 2015.
As of 2014, 80 of the 240 farmers markets in Virginia accepted SNAP for purchases, redeeming $108,827 in vouchers. More than 935,000 Virginians receive SNAP benefits, totaling $1.6 billion in vouchers.
The Williamsburg market’s funding comes from $3.77 million given to Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit, through the FINI program. The Department distributed $31.5 million in FINI grants this year.
Although the grant is only for this year, Herner said she was hopeful it could become a recurring award. That would require continued support at the federal level.
Both the FINI and SNAP programs are included as an item in the 2014 Farm Bill, an omnibus bill passed about every five years that addresses agricultural and food programs, along with other federal policy matters.
Herner said SNAP was regularly a target during budget-cutting sessions in Congress, which could make a reauthorization of the grant difficult.
Accepting SNAP at farmers markets, she said, could raise public perception of an often misunderstood program.
“We just want to make sure people have access to fresh fruits and veggies,” Herner said.
A stable funding source will also allow the market to focus on expanding its programming offerings.
“Now we can focus more on community outreach, getting the word out,” Herner said. “Potentially, we could have things like cooking demonstrations, [or] programs out in the community, like the Grove area.”
The Williamsburg Farmers Market debuted in 2002. It operates from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays in Merchants Square.