With the onset of the winter and holiday season, shoppers using nutrition assistance benefits are getting a little boost in the form of increased matching funds to buy local fruits and vegetables through Maine Harvest Bucks at select co-ops and local markets through the end of the year and winters farmers markets through the end of March.
“We’re really trying to encourage (shoppers) to stock up and enjoy the holiday with a bunch of local foods on the table,” said Shannon Grimes, a farm viability associate for Maine Farmland Trust. Maine Farmland Trust is one of several organizations that sponsors and organizes Maine Harvest Bucks through the Maine Local Foods Access Network.
Maine Harvest Bucks is a federally funded program that allows shoppers using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to stretch their benefits and access more local food. Through the program SNAP shoppers who purchase local foods receive a percentage of their purchase in matching Maine Harvest Bucks for local fruits and vegetables, though the size of the match varies based on where the customer is shopping.
SNAP benefits are accepted ― and Maine Harvest Bucks are redeemed ― at participating retail markets, farmers’ markets, CSAs, mobile markets and farms stands across the state.
As a holiday bonus special, a group of retail markets that offer Maine Harvest Bucks are doubling their standard 50 percent match ratio, meaning that if a customer buys $10 worth of local food they will receive $10 to purchase local fruits and vegetables. The retail special will run through Dec. 31.
The purpose of the bonus is not only to help people stock up for winter on local products and produce, but help people localize their holiday meals and spur further local food connections, according to Grimes.
“One of the things that we get really excited about is it’s a time [of year] for people to come together and to share food, and by being able to share local food it creates a wider community connection,” Grimes said.
Participating retail markets include the Belfast Co-op, the Machias Marketplace, Good Tern Co-op in Rockland, Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta, Blue Hill Co-op, The Farm Stand in South Portland, Portland Co-op and The Morris Farm Store in Wiscasset.
While the retail store bonus will expire at the end of the year, participating winter farmers’ markets will be holding their doubled Maine Harvest Bucks special through March, when the majority of the winter markets will close for the season, according to Emilie Knight, SNAP program coordinator for the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.
At the ten participating winter farmers’ markets SNAP customers will receive a 100 percent match on local food purchases, as compared to the 50 or 25 percent match at summer markets.
The reasoning behind offering the increased bonus at winter farmers’ markets is the same as retail markets in as far as helping people have increased access to local food and produce, but also to provide an incentive for people to attend winter farmers’ markets, which Knight said generally receive lower turnout than summer markets.
Winter farmers markets participating in Maine Harvest Bucks are Bangor’s Ohio Street Market, the Bangor Farmers’ Market, the Belfast Farmers’ Market, the Bridgton Winter Farmers’ Market, the Hampden Farmers’ Market, the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market, the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market and the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market.
Knight and Grimes said this time of year is a good time to stock up on potatoes, carrots, squash, onions and cabbage.
“As the weather gets colder people sort of think, ‘Oh local food is done here in Maine,’ but it’s really not,” Grimes said.