PINE GROVE MILLS — Taking notice to how the pandemic has increased food insecurity for individuals and families, the Pine Groove Mill Farmers Market has made the move to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits this upcoming season.
“Since before we launched in 2018, market leadership has been talking about accepting SNAP, but the economic crisis caused by the pandemic made accepting SNAP a moral imperative,” said Rev. Paul Tomkiel, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church and member of the market’s steering committee.
St. Paul, 277 W. Pine Grove Rd., is the market’s home location on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m.
The market wants to begin accepting SNAP benefits the day it opens on June 10.
“It took a lot of hard work, but I am excited to see the market offer help, not only to hungry families, but also to our local farmers,” Tomkiel said.
All that hard work began when the leadership of the market researched ways it could assist the community and farmers affected by the pandemic. Realizing the American Rescue Plan expanded the SNAP program by 15 percent, the group saw an opportunity for something it always wanted to do.
“It has always been part of our mission to accept SNAP as a market. However, the barrier to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (cards) has been high; the equipment needed was expensive to purchase and the application to become an EBT approved venue was arduous,” market manager Casey VanNest said. “In a bittersweet turn of events this past year, the application became more accessible, and we also found a grant to purchase equipment.”
“We are thrilled to be able to get this program off the ground this year,” said Lisa Strickland, chairperson for the steering committee, said. “We are now in the process of seeking out a person to handle the market day operations of the program.”
The market is a producer-only market that seeks to provide access to fresh and healthy foods, support local growers and producers and be a community gathering space. The new program will make the market accessible to even more of the community.
“I think making fresh local and nutritious food available to everyone is always a benefit no matter their financial situation,” VanNest said. “We are so excited to make this space accessible to everyone regardless of their income level. The more places people have to spend their SNAP benefits, the better.”
This is a trial year for the program, VanNest said, but the hope is to expand the program in the future by offering incentives for people to spend their SNAP benefits on local fruits and vegetables.
“In other parts of the state they have introduced Food Buck programs,” VanNest said. “We hope this will increase our impact both for SNAP users and vendors.”
VanNest said having more people shop at the market is a win for local farmers who utilize the market by providing a larger customer base.
The pandemic has impacted the market in many ways.
“With supply chain disruptions, folks have started thinking about where their food comes from and they have started to make the extra effort to support the food producers in their community,” she said. “On the downside, we have had to curb our community events. We used to have a large tent space for folks to share meals, live music and a community table for nonprofits to attend each week, plus special events throughout the season. We wanted to play it safe this season, but we are looking forward to bringing all those things back in 2022.”
She added, “Being outdoors, the market is a safe space to meet up with friends, shop around, grab a coffee or a bite to eat and connect. We like to say that Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market is a place where community makes a difference. And that is 110 percent true.”
The Boalsburg Farmers Market became the first farmers market to accept SNAP payments in 2016.
This story appears in the May 13-19 edition of The Centre County Gazette.