AUGUSTA — A program that rewards thousands of low-income Mainers receiving financial food assistance for using their benefits to buy locally grown food such as that found at farmers markets is in funding jeopardy this spring.

But Maine farmers market, including those in Augusta and Waterville, are turning to community support and other solutions to bridge the gap even as official seek renewed federal grant support for the growing program.

The Maine Harvest Bucks program, local farmers markets’ organizers say, gives low-income residents incentives to eat healthier food while simultaneously giving farmers a new customer base, which they might not otherwise reach, for what they grow.

“We feel it’s such an important program for the community,” said Sidney farmer Jean Koons, treasurer of the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market, which has a winter market location at the Alfond Youth Center. “Good, natural food is important for everybody. We want the whole range of people coming to the farmers market, so we’re happy to support being local and nutritious and not having to worry too much about the cost. Farmers markets may have a reputation for being expensive, but people will realize, fresh vegetables have so much more nutrition, and they last so much longer, so they’re actually, really, a better deal than well-traveled fruits and vegetables.”

The Maine Harvest Bucks program matches the amount of money low-income Mainers receive through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known as SNAP, or other benefits distributed through a state-issued EBT card. They can spend the credit on items at a participating farmers market or other participating site with Harvest Bucks, which can only be used to purchase locally produced fruits and vegetables, either fresh or processed, with no salt, sugar or fat added, at the same market.

Jimmy DeBiasi, SNAP program coordinator for Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, which administers the Harvest Bucks program in Maine, said farmers at some markets in Maine have stepped up to help fund Harvest Bucks themselves, and others have contacted to local residents, businesses and other entities to seek funding to keep it going. They’ve done so, he said, because they see the value in the program to consumers, their community and their own farms.

“Already more than half our markets that were running Harvest Bucks last year, have raised their own funds. Meanwhile, we’re waiting to hear back from a few grants, large funding sources, to keep going in Maine,” DeBiasi said.

State officials are hopeful either that the federal Department of Agriculture grant that funded Harvest Bucks for three years can be renewed, or that they can find other funding to keep the program going longer-term, so the current funding problem affects people only this spring.

Mary Perry, of Winterberry farm in Belgrade, waits on customer Jay Barnes on Thursday at the winter location of the Waterville Farmers’ Market in the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. Staff photo by David Leaming

About 35 farmers markets in Maine use the program, plus another 20 farmstands and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, according to Leigh Hallett, executive director of the markets federation.

“We’re particularly proud of the Augusta Farmers’ Market at Mill Park, which just started Harvest Bucks,” Hallett said. “They’re superstars. The program is managed so well and they’ve had a tremendous amount of new traffic coming in. They are definitely a model for a young program.”

Over the last three years of the federal grant, more than 6,000 Mainers have been served by the program on more than one occasion, according to DeBiasi. He estimates more than 2,000 Mainers were served last year alone, from Kittery and Portland to the capital region and up to Houlton and Madawaska.

The average market shopper using the Harvest Bucks program probably is spending $15 to $25 on any given day, DeBiasi said; while others, such as elderly people on a fixed income, might save up the allowance monthly and spent it all at once.

“The original grant has run out, but Maine Harvest Bucks is not going anywhere,” DeBiasi said. “It is inspiring how, at many markets, farmers are both getting ready for the coming season, planning their crop rotations and growing and, at the same time, dressing up nice and writing letters and approaching banks and businesses and asking them to support (Harvest Bucks) with funding. So many farmers go into this business so they can feed their community. Markets are rising to the occasion and showing they can secure their own funding.”

Farmers running the Waterville market agreed to use the market’s own funds to keep the Maine Harvest Bucks program going at the market, without federal grant funding that ran out March 31. Koons said last year the market gave away about $4,500 in Harvest Bucks vouchers. This year they’ve set aside about $1,500 that the market had in the bank to keep the program going.

The Waterville Market and the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park, in Augusta, have been providing shoppers with Market Bucks at a 1-to-1 ratio, with one Harvest Buck provided for every $1 spent using an EBT card. In other words, someone receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits on an EBT card who spends $20 on any items at a farmers market is also given $20 in harvest bucks, which can be used only for fruits and vegetables at that market.

Koons, an owner of Kennebec Cheesery at Koons Farm, said the Waterville market, because of the loss of grant money and to make the money they set aside for the program last longer, plans to reduce the match to $1 in Harvest Bucks for every $2 spent using an EBT card at the market.

In Augusta, the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park, which has a winter market at 70 State St., plans to continue matching each $1 of EBT spending by consumers with $1 in Harvest Bucks. The market is using its own money to keep the program going, but it also has received $100 toward the program from local health food store Harvest Time and a commitment of $1,000 from Kennebec Savings Bank to keep the program going until longer-term funding is secured.

Chelsea farmer Kelby Young, an organizer of the market in Augusta, said Harvest Bucks give low-income consumers a great way to extend the buying-power of their EBT benefits, getting them even more fresh local foods than they could get without the program. Also, it gives farmers a boost as more people use their benefits to buy their goods, and their Harvest Bucks to buy their fruits and vegetables.

“We felt strongly it was important to continue the program. Some of our customers really rely on what this program does,” said Young, an owner of Olde Haven Farm. “If you have a customer that’s receiving EBT and, all of a sudden, (with Harvest Bucks) you double what they can buy, that’s a huge impact. They might buy, say, $20 worth of tomatoes to make sauce. If that doubles, then they can get peppers, garlic and other veggies with those Harvest Bucks. And that’s also a significant boost to farmers.”

Andrew Silsby, president and chief executive officer of Kennebec Savings Bank, said the bank stepped in to provide $1,000 in interim funding to keep the Augusta Harvest Bucks program going simply because it seemed like “a great program.”

“We’re helping local farmers and getting EBT users the ability to get fresh fruits and vegetables by leveraging some dollars,” Silsby said. “We really believe in the spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish and feel good about these efforts going on in our community. We’re excited about the prospect of keeping this going, and giving them time to look for other funding sources.”

Young noted the Market at Mill Park, for the last several years, has received major support from MaineGeneral Medical Center, including $5,000 this year. But he said market farmers and users appreciate Kennebec Savings Bank stepping in to provide funding to keep the Harvest Bucks program alive, for now.

Young said more than $10,000 has been redeemed in Harvest Bucks over the last year at the Augusta market.

Statewide, since the program started three years ago, shoppers using SNAP benefits have purchased $200,000 in fruits and vegetables through the program, and Maine farmers have gained more than $500,000 in revenue from Maine Harvest Bucks and SNAP, according to the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.

Maine Harvest Bucks also can be used at some local farm stands and community supported agriculture programs.

Meanwhile, the program has had the added benefit of strengthening relationships between farmers and their neighbors in need, DeBiasi said.

“Part of goal of the program is to have these farmers and shoppers build community relationships,” he said. “Most farmers know their customers by name, know their kids, and build that social fabric in a wonderful way.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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