Samantha Caplan is a perfect hostess. In the Saturday morning crush of the Boulder Farmers Market she is welcoming, relaxed, and always moving — passing cucumbers and zucchini to customers, expertly palming a muskmelon to test for ripeness, rearranging baskets of carrots, then pushing a handful of hair back under her bright, navy Monroe Organic Farms baseball cap. She doesn’t hesitate making change from a canvas hip pouch, whether the customer passes over a crumpled twenty or a stack of one-dollar increment paper bills labeled “SNAP”. The glossy rectangles are printed with pictures of fruit, vegetables, maybe a cartoon pig or a wedge of cheese — a handy pictograph for vendors of what it can buy.
Customers at the Boulder Farmers Markets are spending more SNAP dollars than ever before, according to the market’s financial records. SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once known as food stamps, helps low-income Americans meet basic nutritional needs. With three months still left in an eight-month season of weekly markets, SNAP shoppers have spent roughly $75,000 at the Boulder markets, on pace for a new annual record. SNAP revenues have grown more than eight-fold over the last four years – and that growth isn’t by chance. In 2014, Boulder joined several other Colorado markets with SNAP incentive programs, launching a pilot that matched the value of SNAP redeemed at select locations up to $20 dollars per visit as long as that the extra cash was spent on local fruits and vegetables. With a 2016 federal grant, the program now known as “Double Up” became an option for markets statewide.
“With my [SNAP] doubled, I can make ends meet for the month,” said Veronica Llabrez, pushing a walker through Boulder’s Wednesday night market crowd beneath a straw hat adorned with fake yellow flowers. Her basket was filled with beans and potatoes, topped with fresh lemon basil she had gotten on a deal.
Monroe Farms, where Caplan works both in the fields and as a market vendor, has participated in the Double Up Program since the beginning. Though she might have to spend a few extra minutes sorting paper currencies at the end of the market, she says the Double Up program not only means that people are able to spend more at her stall, but it also expands her customer base.
“Now we go home with a huge bag of SNAP and Double Up,” said Caplan. “It’s a gateway to the market. It allows people who wouldn’t usually be candidates to spend at prices we charge at market to slip in and realize that there actually is a place for them. We want them here … our customers are everything.”
As Caplan sold her produce that day, she was unaware of the ongoing tug-of-war in Washington over the fate of her SNAP customers. The federal Farm Bill, a twice-a-decade legislative behemoth, is what provides funding and sets eligibility requirements for the SNAP program. The 2014 edition will expire at the end of September, and this year’s drafts remain jammed up over the House’s – and the Trump administration’s – desire to impose new work requirements and stricter eligibility criteria on SNAP recipients. Under the proposal, able-bodied people aged 18-59 with no dependents under the age of six would be required to work at least 20 hours a week in order to retain their benefits. If that version that makes it through reconciliation, 3.2 million total recipients could lose out, according to recent studies by the Congressional Budget Office and Mathematica Policy Institute.
Proponents for the restrictions argue that government money shouldn’t be a hand-out for able-bodied adults who aren’t working. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to press senators to accept the House’s SNAP work requirements at the Farm Bill conference committee’s first formal meeting. But advocates say that federal cuts to SNAP would challenge those caring for children, looking for work, temporarily injured, or in between jobs. They also point out that the benefits of SNAP and Double Up also accrue to farmers – the very people that the Farm Bill aims to support.
“Ten percent of my sales at the market this weekend were from SNAP, which is huge because those people definitely wouldn’t have shopped with me without it,” said Krisan Christensen, who owns Farm N’ Wild Wellspring in Boulder, but who commutes up Boulder Canyon to the Nederland market to sell her vegetables. Last year, she ran a pop-up farm stand in the same area that was unable to accept SNAP, but she still had people ask if she could take the currency. “They were customers I had to either decline or who would buy less than they would have.”
Last year, Colorado farmers who participated in the SNAP and Double Up program grossed a combined total of nearly $335,000 in those dollars, according to an annual report from LiveWell Colorado. The currency is reimbursed, dollar for dollar, by the farmers markets in cash or applied toward vendors’ fees or both. In a participant survey, 85 percent of shoppers reported that they would not have spent money at farmers market without the incentive.
“Oftentimes, those are the people willing to buy our seconds,” Caplan said, who has worked at the Boulder market since she was a kid alongside her dad. “Those are the people who are willing to say, ‘Yes, I want your blemished produce.’”
Any change to the Farm Bill that would cut SNAP benefits would “definitely matter” to the farm’s bottom line, she said.
SNAP shoppers don’t stand out amid Boulder’s pedestrian traffic jam of baby strollers and over-stuffed reusable shopping bags. A thin, shoeless man with a head full of dreadlocks-to-be whips out a thick Chase Sapphire credit card, hoping for a Square reader, while a stylish, neat dark haired woman quickly pulls SNAP dollars from a paperclip once she reaches the register to pay for a head of kale.
“It was a trickle,” said Jeni Nagle, who has sold fruit for Ela Family Farms, an organic orchard in Hotchkiss, Colorado, for nearly two decades. “Now it’s more consistent…I don’t care what their money looks like.”
Small farmers, especially those that grow many kinds of vegetables, don’t benefit from subsidies or crop insurance traditionally associated with the Farm Bill. Revenues depend on customers. Ela Farms’ Nagle referenced the word-of-mouth momentum she has witnessed as SNAP shoppers tell one another about the program: “It’s exactly what we need.”
In 2015, the first complete Double Up year, SNAP revenues went up 500 percent over pre-program levels, while the total general market revenues increased just 18 percent according to data from Boulder County Farmers Market director Brian Coppom. Two years in, SNAP sales still grew at seven times the pace of overall intake. It’s spread around, so not all vendors track a measurable increase in year-over-year profits, but the increased sales meant an extra $102,000 shared among the area’s fruit and vegetable growers.
That sort of money matters. “Of the many farmers we work with,” Coppom said. “I’d be surprised if many are making above $40,000 in [annual net] earnings.” Prior to Double Up, many Boulder vendors chose to take the financial hit and expand access to their produce, offering up to 50 percent discounts to SNAP shoppers.
Christensen said she’s been on both sides of the counter. “My first year of business I was on SNAP,” she said. “I sometimes get to the point where I need it in the wintertime, when income is lower and there isn’t as much food.”
She still offers sliding-scale pricing to her market customers in an attempt to make her food more accessible. Such solutions “perpetually [put] the burden on the farmer to be poor so other people can eat,” Coppom said. Rather than demanding that farmers lower prices, he notes that Double Up directly increases the ability of low-income consumers to pay the full cost of growing their produce. “Food access is not a food cost issue, it is a poverty issue.”
Coppom said the program is responsible for only about two percent of the revenues at the Boulder County Farmers Markets, which include markets in Longmont and at Denver’s Union Station. But, he added, those locations generate nearly one-third of the total combined SNAP and Double Up Bucks revenue statewide. Though Double Up is active in 29 Colorado counties, many of those without access are concentrated in eastern or rural areas. Southern Costilla County, which had the highest percentage of SNAP recipients in the state in 2016 at 26.1 percent, according to US Census data, currently has no Double Up locations. Neither do its neighbors on either side, Las Animas and Conejos, where SNAP enrollment stands at 17.6 and 20.8 percent of residents respectively.
And potential cuts aside, the more than 442,000 Coloradans receiving SNAP benefits as of June actually represent only about 75 percent of those who are eligible. Colorado currently ranks 45th in the nation for SNAP enrollment, according to USDA statistics from this spring. The Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger notes that SNAP generated more than $1.3 billion in local economic development in 2016, and that higher enrollment in the program could have added another $445 million to that total.
Despite the pending national legislative headwinds, Coppom said he is working hard to attract more Double Up Bucks to his markets. Over half of Boulder’s SNAP recipients have children, and he notes that it will make a big difference in future market profits if those kids value fresh food and local produce early on. One such customer, Indira Mahima, regularly shops at market with her husband and three children. Mahima is small but speaks directly, the pinpoint of a red bindi bright between her eyebrows.
“Without [Double Up], I could not have afforded to come to market,” she said, holding the hand of her youngest daughter who gnawed on a long english cucumber.
If kids like her grow up eating that way, Coppom says, “[Farmers are] going to have a bigger market tomorrow than they do today.”
He said he also understands the need to broaden the program’s reach. Boulder currently has a greater reputation for rising housing costs than for ethnic or economic diversity. “People go where they see themselves,” Coppom said, explaining a push to attract more Spanish-speaking vendors. Though he understands that SNAP shoppers enjoy their current ability to blend in to the bustle of the market, he believes that “Our community is not used to the idea of low income. [To expand] we need to be loud.”
“[Double Up] allows people who wouldn’t usually be candidates to spend at prices we charge at market to slip in and realize that they’re actually is a place for them here,” said Caplan of Monroe Farms. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, we want you here!’ Last year, a lot of people came up and Spanish was their first language and they didn’t really want to talk with us. This year, they’re a lot more comfortable. They spend more here.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Boulder launched the first Double Up Bucks pilot program in 2014. It started its own incentive program that year.