Linda Rawson looks forward to picking out fresh green onions, raspberries and tomatoes at Minneapolis’ farmers markets each summer — food she likely wouldn’t be able to afford without the help of an increasingly popular statewide program.
Market Bucks, which offers incentives to low-income Minnesotans to buy food from farmers markets, is expanding this spring. The program narrowly escaped the state’s chopping block last year and ended 2021 with a new record of participants.
“I think it makes us all healthier,” said Rawson, 66, of Minneapolis, who lost her job at an assisted living facility a year ago. “These are tough 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, enabling them to buy $20 of eligible food at farmers markets.
More than 17,000 people used the Market Bucks program last year, up from 13,000 in 2020 — mirroring an influx in Minnesotans using food stamps, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That number has risen from an average of about 413,000 recipients each month in 2020 to more than 445,000 monthly in 2021.
The increase could reflect both a growing need for food aid, as soaring rents and high inflation stress low-income residents, and improvement in the state’s outreach and access to the program. People who qualify for food stamps also received more money when that program was expanded last year, raising the average monthly benefit per person from $157 in 2020 to $175, as part of federal emergency COVID-19 relief.
Starting in May, Minnesotans who qualify for the Market Bucks program will get extra money to buy food specifically from local farmers. The state landed a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that matches the state funding, doubling Market Bucks’ budget and supporting the program’s costs. It will provide $20 worth of Market Bucks for every $10 in food stamps spent at farmers markets.
“This is another opportunity to build access” to food, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group that runs Market Bucks.
More than 80 farmers markets participate in the Market Bucks program, with 60% of them 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, manager for two Duluth farmers markets and the recently launched Community Action Duluth’s mobile market.
“There is still a need and a higher level of food insecurity,” Flom said. “Local and healthy foods are important to anybody — it doesn’t matter your income bracket.”