The expanding reach of Vermont’s farmers’ markets are drawing tourists to Vermont and giving a boost to the local economy, but they are also helping to ensure people of all incomes can obtain healthy food.
As many families are struggling to recover in the most severe recession since the Great Depression, a growing number of Vermonters with low-incomes are gaining access to local, healthy foods since roughly two-thirds of the state's farmers' markets now accept 3SquareVT benefits.
Vermont’s 64 farmers’ markets and 93 farm stands have helped Vermont earn the top spot in the 2013 Localvore Index, meaning it has the most farmers’ markets, food hubs and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms per capita in the United States.
“We know that approximately $12 million in federal money comes into Vermont every year through 3SquaresVT,” said Erin Buckwalter of Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA). By incorporating 3SquareVT, she said “low-income customers can afford local food, and farmers get a portion of those dollars. Unlike a grocery store, there is no middleman.”
One in six Vermonters receives 3SquaresVT benefits. Since this program can now be used at farmers’ markets and farm stands, families who are struggling to pay the bills have greater access to locally grown, healthy foods.
The 3SquaresVT benefits program is a “success,” said Maggie Burkhart, a market assistant at the Burlington Farmer’s Market, which meets every other Saturday in City Hall Park.
“Every year we get more and more people,” Burkhart said. “Burlington is a highly educated city and people are conscious about what it means to support their local communities. And with these benefits, you’re getting affordable, high-quality products at the same time.”
Beginning in July, most market sites that accept 3SquaresVT and public assistance benefits cards will also accept “Harvest Health” coupons, giving customers a two dollar match in coupons for every two dollars they spend up to $10 per market day.
“This is going to increase the buying power of federal benefits, giving consumers an incentive to shop at a farmers' market over a grocery chain,” Buckwalter said.
Millions of dollars a year are pumped into the local economy as a result of Vermont’s farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets are drawing vendors from up to 50 miles away, making them beneficial for the state’s tourism industry and small businesses. Farmers' markets generated nearly $8 million in gross sales per season, according to 2010 data. Farmers' Market’s Week, which will be held in Vermont in early August, is sure to draw thousands of visitors to farmers markets across the state.
Networking of several agricultural organizations and mini-grants given to vendors by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA), have brought Vermont farmers’ markets a long way since they were first organized in the 1970s. They are more economically viable and provide a wide range of healthy options.