Nutrition incentives support the purchase of fruits and vegetables by low-income consumers often in the form of matching dollars, vouchers, coupons, or discounts called “incentives.” Nutrition incentive programs across the U.S. most often serve individuals and families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP incentive programs are often offered at farmers’ markets, mobile markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and sometimes supermarkets and corner stores.
Why Do Farmers’ Markets Offer Nutrition Incentives?
Nutrition incentive programs offered through direct-to-consumer outlets increase the affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income families while increasing revenue for local farmers and producers (Nutrition Incentive Hub n.d.).
Most farmers’ markets and/or partnering organizations offer nutrition incentives for one or more of the following reasons:
- Increase and diversify the farmers’ market customer base
- Incentivize SNAP recipients to spend their benefits at farmers’ markets and funnel federal dollars into the local economy
- Increase revenue for local farmers and producers
- Increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income consumers
- Help low-income consumers stretch their monthly SNAP benefit allocation
What Is SNAP?
SNAP is the result of a federal Food Stamp Program that was created in 1939. The program went through several iterations before becoming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008 (USDA Food and Nutrition Service 2018). SNAP is a federally funded program that temporarily aids low-income individuals and families to purchase food (Feeding America n.d.). Families receiving SNAP benefits receive a monthly allocation based on family size and income that is placed on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. SNAP benefits can be used to purchase eligible food items at any authorized food retail location, including authorized farmers’ markets.
Accepting Nutrition Incentives
If your market is just beginning to accept SNAP benefits and is interested in including nutrition incentives as part of your SNAP benefits, you may want to consider spreading this process out over two years. Accepting SNAP on its own is complex and can be challenging for a market to establish. Markets will not only need to ensure they can meet the rules and regulations for SNAP but will also need to train vendors and customers on how to conduct SNAP transactions. Waiting a season or two before adding a nutrition incentive program gives you time to review financial data, “iron out the kinks,” and get a better understanding of your SNAP-eligible customers' needs and their spending patterns. This data can help you apply for incentive programs, fundraise, and market SNAP programs.
Common Restrictions and Eligible Products
Eligible individuals and families can purchase a variety of items with SNAP benefits. These items include fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry, eggs, and fish; dairy products; breads and cereals; snack foods and baked goods; and seeds and plants that produce fruits, vegetables, or herbs. SNAP cannot be used to purchase hot foods; pet food or treats; flowers or shrubbery; alcoholic beverages; or live animals. To see a complete list of eligible and ineligible food items:
- Visit the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website.
- Click Programs.
- Select SNAP from the drop-down menu.
- After the SNAP webpage displays, scroll down to Popular Topics.
- Click What Can SNAP Buy?
Nutrition incentives most often supplement SNAP funds at farmers’ markets, but often are more restrictive in the types of products that can be purchased. Most grant-funded incentive programs limit purchases to only fresh fruits and vegetables (USDA Food and Nutrition Service 2021).
Educating New SNAP Customers
The potential for a successful program increases when new SNAP customers are educated. Due to the uniqueness of SNAP programs, it is imperative that customers are educated before making a purchase. With multiple types of scrip or tokens, you can expect some confusion. A proven strategy for educating SNAP customers is to place signage throughout the market and at vendor stalls indicating what types of tokens/scrip can be used and where they should go to purchase their SNAP produce. For new customers, it is important to make them feel welcome at your market while also helping them understand the differences in the programs available to them. Consider providing new customers with a guide that details what tokens/scrip can be used for what items and where the vendors that accept them are located. Market staff or volunteers should be prepared to answer questions and help customers find the products they are seeking. It is important that all vendors and volunteers at the market are supportive and helpful to new customers—a little care and personal touch goes a long way to ensuring repeat customers and a successful SNAP incentive program.
Feeding America. n.d. “Why Lawmakers Must Strengthen SNAP.” Accessed November 30, 2021. feedingamerica.org/take-action/advocate/federal-hunger-relief-programs/snap.
Nutrition Incentive Hub. n.d. “Nutrition Incentive Hub.” Accessed November 30, 2021. nutritionincentivehub.org/login?ReturnUrl=%2Fabout-nutrition-incentives.
USDA Food and Nutrition Service. 2018. “A Short History of SNAP.” fns.usda.gov/snap/short-history-snap.
USDA Food and Nutrition Service. 2021. “What Can SNAP Buy?” fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items.