Food stamps could go farther at farmers markets in South Carolina if a legislative request gets federal approval.
During budget negotiations, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, and Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, convinced the Senate Finance Committee to include a provision committing $1.9 million to a program that doubles the first $5 of food stamp benefits when they are used to buy fresh produce at farmers markets. In other words, get $10 worth of veggies for $5.
The money isn’t a state appropriation. The state Department of Social Services earned the $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for reducing the error rate in the food stamp program from 3.14 percent to 1.59 percent last year.
Any changes in the food stamp program, formally Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, must be approved by the USDA. The feds already have approved “double bucks” programs in several states. A test of a similar effort at a farmers market at the Family Health Center in Orangeburg County in recent years has been deemed a success.
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“Folks will eat the right things if they have access to them and can afford them,” Alexander said. “At the same time, we’re supporting our farm producers.”
There are 120 community-based farmers markets or individual farm stands and three state farmers markets in South Carolina. Eighty-two accept SNAP funds, according to the USDA. Farmers markets in the state first began accepting SNAP funds in 2006.
Not many SNAP dollars are spent at farmers markets – only $283,937 in the 2012 fiscal year. Total SNAP spending in the state that year was $2.4 billion.
Increasing the use of SNAP funds at farmers markets “is a struggle we’ve been having since 2006,” said Fred Broughton, who helps coordinate the South Carolina Association of Farmers Markets.
Either some of the $1.9 million allocated to the double bucks program will have to be spent on promotion, or shopping habits will have to change on their own. At the current rate of spending, it would take nearly seven years to spend it all on double bucks.
Details of the double bucks waiver request haven’t been released by the Department of Social Services. Of course, the agency at the request of Gov. Nikki Haley also is putting together a waiver request to ban use of SNAP funds for some unhealthy foods, meaning South Carolina could be using both the carrot and the stick approach to improving the health of SNAP recipients.