This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced a $4,628,765 grant awarded to local nonprofit Farm Fresh RI to expand its work increasing access to fresh, locally grown foods across New England. For Rhode Islanders who receive federal food assistance in the form of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, this means more dollars to spend on fresh food. The grant is being used to increase Farm Fresh RI’s existing Bonus Bucks nutrition incentives program to offer an impressive 100% match for SNAP users at select Rhode Island farmers markets, CSAs, and farm stands — doubling the purchasing power of low-income Rhode Islanders to buy more nutritious foods and re-investing those federal dollars into the Rhode Island economy by directly supporting local growers and food businesses. As impactful as this one-to-one match is for the Ocean State, the grant has wide-reaching benefits across the New England region. Marking a new chapter in Farm Fresh RI’s work out of state, the grant now empowers Farm Fresh RI to support the nutrition incentives programs offered by Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont as well, through the creation of the New England Nutrition Incentive Collaborative (NENIC).
“We are very pleased that we were able to receive this funding, and support two key constituencies: local growers and our neighbors in need of nutrition assistance.” said Sheri Griffin, Co-Executive Director of Farm Fresh RI. “This connection is at the core of our mission. We are also very excited to support our colleagues across New England who are partners on this ambitious project.”
The grant awarded to Farm Fresh RI, administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program and authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, is the largest of 24 grants totaling $21M awarded nationwide by the USDA this week.
“Fresh, nutritious, and locally grown fruits and vegetables should be accessible to everybody, and I’m glad to see the USDA provide Farm Fresh RI the funding for this project,” said U.S. Senator Jack Reed. In May, Senator Reed wrote a letter to the USDA in support of Farm Fresh RI’s grant application. “The incentives NENIC will provide to encourage the purchase of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables at farmers markets lead to healthier lifestyles for SNAP recipients while at the same time boosting our state’s agricultural economy. This is truly a win-win for Rhode Island. I congratulate Farm Fresh RI for receiving this funding, and I will continue my work to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have greater access to nutritious and affordable foods.”
Farmers markets play an important role in increasing the availability and accessibility of local foods. They offer more places for local farmers and producers to sell their products, and invite the local community to gather over a variety of fresh foods in their own neighborhoods. In summertime, over 40 farmers markets across Rhode Island not only provide eaters with a reliable source for nutritious, locally sourced options but help build community, protect greenspace, and grow the potential for job creation in Rhode Island by directing food dollars to marketplaces that support local farms and food businesses. Nutrition incentives, like Farm Fresh RI’s Bonus Bucks and the similar programs offered by other NENIC states, enable a greater percentage of the community to take part — putting fresh, local foods within reach by making the healthy choice an easier choice for people with limited food budgets.
“In some low-income neighborhoods, Farm Fresh Rhode Island markets are the only place where reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are sold,” said U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “This significant federal grant will help more families use SNAP benefits at local farmers markets to put fresh, healthy food on the table.”
For many people across New England, nutrition incentives make the critical difference in being able to shop for fresh food at farmers markets. In 2017, 29 weekly farmers markets in Rhode Island accepted SNAP, impacting sales for 78 farms and 65 locally owned food producers. At these markets, Rhode Islanders spent over $105,000 in SNAP dollars, which went to local food businesses, and Farm Fresh RI distributed over $70,000 in Bonus Bucks nutrition incentives to families enrolled in SNAP and WIC programs in Rhode Island. With this new FINI grant, NENIC hopes to reach over 20,000 consumers at over 250 outlets across New England.
“As a SNAP participant and farmers market staff, I experience the benefits from both sides of the table,” explained Tara, a customer and employee at the Coastal Growers Market at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, RI. “Bonus Bucks enables me to purchase about 90% of my groceries from local growers and food artisans at the only place I want to shop: farmers markets. Educating the public about this incentives program and seeing the range of emotions it elicits—from surprise to excitement to deep gratitude—affirms my continuing dedication to increasing food access for all.”
To locate the many farmers markets in RI that accept SNAP and provide Bonus Bucks, community members can use the search tool provided by Farm Fresh RI at www.farmfreshri.org/ebt.