“People are generally in a really good mood here; there’s something about markets that makes people want to walk slowly, say ‘thank you’, wish others a good day”, Justin Coniaris says to me as we sit in Copley Square, surrounded by the aroma of basil and the traffic of downtown Boston – a smell and noise pairing that probably wouldn’t be found here if not for the presence of the square’s twice-weekly farmers’ market. I sit with Justin, the EBT Coordinator, Glennon Beresin, Assistant Manager at the market, and Manager Ben Sommers, and ask the trio about their experiences working here this summer, and specifically about the market’s doubling program called Boston Bounty Bucks.
“The majority of food that you find in the grocery store is sort of ‘branded’, and we’ve been kind of trained to have an emotional connection to these brands”, Justin continues, “so I think that people feel it’s really refreshing to actually see who grew or made their food.” Along with being able to put a face to their food, farmer’s markets allow urbanites the opportunity to eat fresh and local food without leaving their city, or even their neighborhood.
However, the high quality of farmers’ market food has often come at a cost that is not affordable for every socioeconomic bracket. This price trend has not gone unnoticed, and luckily, many areas of the country now have programs where Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP Benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps, can be used at local farmers’ markets. Some communities even have “doubling” programs, where federal money goes further when combined with extra funding to promote using SNAP benefits for healthy food as opposed to less healthy (but unfortunately often less expensive) options. Boston’s version of this has been around since 2008, and is called Boston Bounty Bucks. The program means that any participant with SNAP Benefits can use their Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT card at a participating farmers’ market and receive a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $10. In other words, you can receive $20 worth of money at the market for only $10 of your own SNAP money. The deal can be used once at each market per day; one could theoretically visit all of the participating markets in a week – there is even more than one market running most days of the week and every day except for wednesday – and partake in the doubling program at each participating location (To see which Massachusetts farmers’ markets accept SNAP Benefits and Bounty Bucks, visit the Mass Farmers Market website: click the “Markets” button at the top of the page, then select “Food Stamps/EBT” in the “Market Service” drop-down menu and click the adjacent magnifying glass).
“Farmers’ markets have kind of been constructed in a way that’s very ‘white upper class’, and as something that aligns with ideas of what a ‘foodie’ is and what ‘gourmet’ is thought to mean; I think that’s the kind of culture that comes to mind when people think of a farmers’ market”, Justin continues, “but I think the SNAP program helps to kind of shatter some of that illusion.” The Bounty Bucks program is available at 23 farmers’ markets in the greater Boston area. It was started in 2008 by the City of Boston and The Food Project, and is now run by the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, along with funding and support from Wholesome Wave and several other organizations. At Copley Market specifically, Mass Farmers Markets, a non-profit organization that provides support and information to hundreds of markets throughout the state, has also helped to implement the doubling program and oversees the volunteer positions that Justin and Glennon hold.
One of the best things about the Bounty Bucks program seems to be that it encourages people who have SNAP benefits to shop at Farmers’ Markets and buy fresh produce. “A lot of people cite the Boston Bounty Bucks program as the reason that they’re able to purchase this kind of food; a lot of them feel like they wouldn’t be able to afford shopping here if they didn’t have this program, because the prices are higher than most grocery stores”, Justin says. I can see how excited many participants seem when they come to the table to get their laminated Bounty Bucks, and I’m told many come every week. Justin knows many by name: “I think a big part of my position is just getting to know the people and getting to remember their names, so they feel comfortable here and want to keep coming back, keep contributing to the community feeling. It feels like more of community than I would’ve expected.”
Justin, Glennon, and Ben all agree that the program is a great thing and very well-received, but that knowledge of its existence could be much more prevalent than it is, and are working to increase awareness. “The Boston Bounty Bucks program is a really exciting program, and even though it’s been around for a number of years, the most challenging part is getting the word out to the communities who need it, so hopefully we’ll be making a dent in that through this season”, Glennon says.
Justin and Glennon are primarily involved in educating people who have EBT cards about the Bounty Bucks doubling program, and in processing one-on-one transactions with these cardholders, who come to their tent at the market to receive their Bounty Bucks that can then be used just like regular money at each stand. They both really like their positions here at Copley. Justin says he feels he is “filling a roll that is necessary for some good things to happen”, that all the people they’ve come into contact with while volunteering here have been really great, and that he’s been “learning about a part of the food system that I didn’t know a lot about before, so I think it’s been really enriching in a lot of ways”. Ben Sommer, Copley Market’s Manager who coordinates the logistics for the market and oversees its operation, also enjoys working here, his favorite aspect being “the opportunity to be a part of the local food scene and kind of help a lot of these vendors and farms make a name for themselves in this city. It’s really cool to see where they’ve come from, and talk about what their dreams are, how they got started, and see where they go from here; it’s cool to be a part of that.”
Summer 2012 Food Warrior