Making Your Farm Accessible to Low-Income Customers

In the spring of 2010, with one season of farming under my belt and the travel bug planted inside me, I moved to Alaska to work as a School Garden Supervisor for Calypso Farm and Ecology Center.  My job was to teach garden lessons in the spring and fall when school was in session, and to supervise and teach student gardeners in the EATinG Program (Engaging Alaskan Teens in Gardening) throughout the summer.  I was assigned to Hunter School Garden, an urban school with many students from low-income families.  The student gardeners learned how to manage a small CSA and run a farm stand each week outside of the school.  They also brought a veggie share home themselves.  When the farm stand opened, neighborhood customers walked to buy fresh veggies, and I was surprised at the amount of folks paying with WIC vouchers, food stamps, or senior coupons.  The amount of actual cash we collected sometimes paled in comparison to the number of vouchers that filled our money bag.  That summer opened my eyes to the vast number of people who want access to fresh local food, and the need for more markets in low-income neighborhoods to increase that access.

In 2013, my husband Edge (whom I met at Calypso Farm) and I began Good Heart Farmstead in Worcester, Vermont.  Our mission is to grow healthy, whole foods and to make them available to people of all income levels, increasing the accessibility of local food to low-income Vermonters.  It is our hope that by increasing this food access, we will also bring people of different socio-economic backgrounds together to create a diverse community that encourages neighbors helping neighbors.  In my experience, you can’t tell who depends on food aid by appearance.  Perhaps by bringing people together, we can start to break open this issue and find a better solution through collaboration.

But how to do this?

There are many ways to increase food access to low-income customers, and at Good Heart Farmstead we are still working on expanding our offerings to meet our mission goal.  Here are some ways we’ve found to do this:

Partner with an existing organization

The first step we took at Good Heart Farmstead was to partner with the NOFA Vermont Farm Share Program.  This program helps subsidize the cost of CSA shares, allowing Vermonters living at or below 185% of the poverty line to buy a share at half of the original price.  NOFA pays 25% and the participating farm pays 25%.  Farms cover this cost by fundraising for the program, and since NOFA is a non-profit, they are able to accept donations on the farm’s behalf, allowing folks to make tax-deductible donations.  By supporting the participating farm and NOFA through donations, this program allows the whole community to get involved and help increase food access.

There are many organizations that are already connecting people and food.  Reach out and see how your farm might collaborate with and support existing programs.

Food Bank Share

Last spring we received an email from a community member wanting to donate a CSA share to the local food bank.  Each Wednesday, the Worcester Food Bank puts on a free community lunch, and we were thrilled to be able to contribute to it for the 20 weeks of our CSA season.  As we prepare for next year, we plan on having a fundraiser specifically for a food bank share so we can continue supplying fresh greens and veggies each week.

Offer Work-trade and a Sliding Scale

A simple way to increase food access is to offer alternative ways of paying for food.  One way to do that is by offering a full or partial work-trade agreement.  In our first season, we had one member who paid for her entire share by helping out on the farm each harvest day.  She’d come in the morning, help with harvest and garden maintenance, and then go home with her food for the week.  Not only did this allow her to buy a share, but she greatly helped us on one of our busiest days.  After a few weeks, she knew the farm routine and we trusted her ability to work independently.

Along with work-trade, sliding scales are an easy way to increase accessibility.  You can set three tiers of payment, for example: $350, $450, $550.  Or you can simply say it is a sliding scale between $350 and $550, letting the customer choose the exact amount they pay. When using a sliding scale, it is important to keep track of each member’s payment amount so you can be sure you are meeting your farm’s income needs.  It’s a good idea to set goals for each tier of the scale and track the numbers as CSA shares fill up.

Have Pick-up Spots in Easy-to-Reach Locations

Good Heart Farmstead is located only about a mile outside of the village of Worcester, but it’s all uphill. Without easy access to a car, coming to the farm to pick up a CSA share is difficult.  Because we value a physical connection to the farm and want to share it with our members, we will always have an on-farm pick up option, but it is also important to us that our veggies are easy to get.  By offering a pick-up location in downtown Montpelier, we get food closer to a larger population in a more pedestrian-friendly area.

Accept SNAP Benefits

Farms can apply to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps, as payment.  In Vermont, SNAP is called 3SquaresVT, and benefits are distributed through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, similar to a debit card.  Once a farm is approved, customers can use their EBT cards to pay for veggies at the farm; many farmers markets in Vermont already offer this service.  Once farms are set up to accept EBT cards, customers can use their benefits to pay for CSA shares, though because of SNAP rules, payment cannot be made for the full CSA in advance.  Instead, customers pay weekly for their share.  Though this changes the typical payment structure of the CSA, it can help farms with cash flow through the season.

Share Your Knowledge

Showing another how to plant a seed and properly care for it is an invaluable gift.  Whether you organize workshops, partner with a school, or simply teach a neighbor, empowering others to grow their own food is a key part of addressing food accessibility.  Throughout history, the act of growing food has been a community endeavor, so find a friend or a stranger and plant some seeds together.  Food, after all, is meant to be shared.

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