Hurray!

SNAP   Stretch is on solid ground!

As thousands of West Virginians flocked to local foods,

          SNAP Stretch almost died of popularity!

Peggy Miller was excited to hear that SNAP Stretch will be back this summer. "I heard something happened to it!" she said. She was holding down the booth for Roane County's Critchfield Farms at the Capitol Farmers Market. "That SNAP Stretch, it's good for business," she said. " And I'll tell you what, it's really good for the people!"

 

People who count pennies, but want to eat fresh, local food

love SNAP Stretch because it lets them get double the amount

of healthy food, if they buy at a market that offers the program.

 

With $10 in SNAP credit, they can buy $20 in food. SNAP Stretch

matches their dollars. If they have their child with them, their

$10 gets them $30 in food. Seniors get the same deal.


"Last summer, it was a blessing!" Miller said. After COVID19

hit, many thousands of West Virginians suddenly became eligible

for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. If they were eligible for 

SNAP, they were eligible for SNAP Stretch, if they could find a market that offers the program. (Here's a list.)

“With so many people off work because of the pandemic,  this program is a godsend,” said Matthew  Thompson, West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition organizer. “We have a lot of grandparents raising grandkids, young parents who’ve been laid off, elderly people. It's just what people need.” 

 

Thompson helps operate SNAP Stretch for the Food and Farm Coalition. SNAP Stretch is also just what the state's small farmers have needed, he said. In 2020, between SNAP Stretch and the original SNAP,  $553,861.41 – more than half a million - went back into farmers wallets from West Virginia's SNAP Stretch sites.

In the first half of 2020, the SNAP Stretch program grew by 661% ...  and almost died of popularity! But thanks to the efforts of a coalition led by Try This partner, WV Food and Farm Coalition, it's back on more solid footing than before!  

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The SNAP Stretch program will match SNAP benefits dollar for dollar, when people spend their SNAP dollars at a market that participates in the SNAP Stretch program.

 

People who have a child with them can be matched at a 1:2 ratio. Seniors get a 1:1 match too. The match can be used to buy more fruits and vegetables.

 

A list of markets that take SNAP Stretch can be found at https://www.snapstretch.com/find-your-market.

 

SNAP Stretch started in 2019, statewide, as a pilot project. WV Food and Farm Coalition received grant funds from USDA/Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program to operate it, with WV DHHR as a partner.

 

SNAP was formerly known as food stamps. 

In 2019, 17.4% of West Virginians received SNAP benefits. That’s 314,042 of the 1.8 million population or 1 in 6 people.

SNAP recipients spend their SNAP benefits using a SNAP EBT card, that looks like a debit/credit card.

 

EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer.

SNAP Stretch was created to increase the buying power of SNAP recipients, increase the consumption of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, and decrease food insecurity.

The SNAP Stretch program was piloted in West Virginia in 2018 and went into full-effect in the 2019 market season.

In 2019, SNAP and SNAP Stretch returned more than a half million dollars to WV small farmers in payment for their produce.

When you use SNAP Stretch, the market gives you

tokens you can trade the vendors for produce.

So what happened in 2020?

“The problem was, so many people wanted SNAP Stretch, the program ran out of funding,” Thompson said.  By early August, SNAP Stretch was out of money. “We thought it was going to collapse.” 

“Now we can look back and laugh about what happened last year, “ he said, “but it wasn’t funny when it was happening. It’s ironic to see positive things coming out of it.

“It feels weird to be saying there's something positive about the pandemic," Thompson said. "But people are supporting farmers and buying healthy food, and that’s positive.”

It didn't collapse, so now it's a good story of people pulling together to make lemonade out of a lemon.

“We had great momentum by the end of 2019,” Thompson said. They had gotten through the pilot year successfully, and the number of WV markets offering SNAP Stretch had almost doubled to 42 sites serving 31 counties . More than 2,000 families were already using the program.

“Going into 2020, we had very high hopes that we could reach thousands more.”

The Food and Farm staff was looking for markets that want to offer the program.  “At the start of 2020, we had a lot of excited farmers market managers and volunteers and folks wanting to do the program,” Thompson said. “Our statewide partners were gung-ho to push it – DHHR, WIC, Extension, Try This and others.”​

Then the pandemic hit. “A lot of our sites couldn’t start, trying to figure out how to safely operate. Some went to a drive-through model. Some didn’t open at all."

 

“We were afraid people would just stop buying local food,” Thompson said.  The exact opposite happened. Participation jumped by 661%.

“Three things happened,” Thompson said. First, the pandemic created a huge demand for local food. “People were wanting to shop locally so they knew where their food was coming from, who had touched it, that it was food that hadn’t been shipped all over the USA during a pandemic.

“Second, people also liked to shop outside or online or go through a drive-through to pick up their food. 

“Third, in July, the school system issued a P-EBT card for around $300 to more than 230,000 schoolchildren who were getting free or reduced-priced meals at school. P-EBT stands for Pandemic – Electronic Benefits Card. “So, if the family with two kids spent their $300 in SNAP benefits at a place that had SNAP Stretch, they could buy $900 in food. And if they were with a grandparent, they had $1,200 to shop with. Suddenly markets had families coming in spending $600 or $900 at a time.” People were buying crates of vegetables to can or otherwise preserve them, he said.

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The problem was, the program was running out of money. For all twelve months of 2019, SNAP Stretch had given back $53,000 to local farmers. The program went into 2020 with about $150,000 to support the program. “In early 2019, we actually  thought it might be hard to spend that much,” Thompson said.

Then people started buying local food like crazy. During the first two-week period in July, SNAP Stretch cleared about $14,000, Thompson said. Then the school system gave out the P-EBT cards. “And in the second two-week period, that number jumped to over $75,000,” he said. “We kept recalculating, thinking we’d made a mistake.”

It was clear that SNAP Stretch was going to run out of funds in midseason, right when people needed the program most. The Food and Farm staff considered capping the amount people could stretch their dollars, as some other states do. They started requesting funding from foundations and private donations. The Pallottine Foundation of Huntington and the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation were among state foundations that came to the rescue, but they couldn’t cover the whole state.

The big hope for immediate statewide help was CARES Act funding.

The federal CARES Act was passed to help the states get through the

pandemic. Each state governor was able to decide how to distribute it.

West Virginia received $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF)

under the CARES Act.

In August 2020, more than a billion of West Virginia’s CRF money was

still unspent. “We flooded the Governor’s office with testimonials from

people in need and support letters from our partners,” Thompson said.

“But you can’t just walk into the governor’s office and tell him what the

situation is and what’s needed. It was very difficult just to get the

situation before him."

Supportive legislators and groups like Extension, WIC, Try This, and others lobbied the governor. Then Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt stepped in. “He made phone calls and arranged personal meetings, and he was able to get this in front of the governor,” he said, “and in October we received $100,000 in CARES funding to carry us through the end of the year.”

In summer 2020, Food and Farm applied for a four-year US Department of Agriculture grant. “That’s an important piece of the funding, so we were biting our nails till we heard that we had it.” 

In November, they heard they got the federal USDA grant for $125,000 a year through 2024-25. “That gives us breathing space,” Thompson said, “but demand for the program is still growing so fast, we still need more funding to be on solid ground.”

The positive impacts of the pandemic will last, Thompson believes.  Many West Virginians who got used to eating local food will also keep doing so, he predicts.  “This past year has really shown the need for the program in the state. It showed commitment to the program from our partners and sites.  A lot of sites are planning to continue to do drive-through, offer advance ordering and offer online sales.”

The Coalition hopes, in the future, that the Department of Agriculture or legislature will decide to give the program its own line item in the budget. “Whatever is put into the program returns to state farmers,” Thompson said, “so the program pays for itself.”  USDA pays for fruit and vegetables only,  but the Department of Agriculture would also support meat, eggs and dairy. “If that happens, it can benefit more farmers and offer a wider range of foods.”

That's a goal for the coming year. Meanwhile, the program will continue to grow.  “We’re going to have more sites this year, and it will be easier for people to find an eligible market." They're planning to add more brick and mortar stores. 

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The goal is to reach every eligible West Virginia family. "To do that, SNAP Stretch will need a mix of federal and state funding, foundation dollars, and private donations."  Meanwhile, the program will be there, growing and helping people eat local, healthy food.

Want your market or store to offer SNAP Stretch? Contact mthompson@wvfoodandfarm.org

To donate to the SNAP Stretch program, visit: https://givebutter.com/SNAPStretch.