Each year, the USDA celebrates farmers and local foods through National Farmers Market Week, this year running August 4-10. As the name suggests, this week-long event is an opportunity to celebrate fresh foods, local farmers, and the local economy.

This year’s event showcases the USDA’s updated National Farmers Market Directory, which lists 8,144 farmers markets across the country, up from about 5,000 in 2008. “Farmers markets are an important public face for agriculture and a critical part of our nation’s food system,” said Secretary Tom Vilsack. “They provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods. In recent years, USDA has stepped up efforts to support local and regional marketing opportunities for producers, including a modernized Farmer’s Market Directory to help connect farmers, consumers, communities, and businesses around the country.”

South Carolina has taken the celebration one step further, naming August Farmers Market Month. The SC Department of Agriculture encourages the community to visit the three State Farmers Markets and the 120 community-based markets during the month-long celebration.

This week is a perfect opportunity to continue the dialogue of increasing access to healthy foods in underserved communities across the state. Many of the communities in CLF’s service area host a farmers market, but only a few make them accessible to low-income individuals and families. In 2006, the USDA and the SC Department of Agriculture expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to include farmers markets; however, only 47 of South Carolina’s farmers markets participate in the program, representing less than 40% of markets across the state.

To increase participation, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service recently announced $4 million in funding to help equip eligible farmers markets with point-of-sale equipment required to accept food stamps. Accepting SNAP at local markets is a win-win-win situation: it provides access to new customers; it provides food stamp recipients access to healthy food; and it improves the local economy by encouraging the consumption of locally-grown produce.

Another benefit for participating farmers markets and their customers is South Carolina’s proviso to commit $1.9 million to a double-bucks program. The program will double the first $5 of SNAP benefits when they are used to buy fresh produce at farmers markets. In other words, shoppers will get $10 worth of veggies for $5.

Let us continue to celebrate our farmers, their farms, and the healthy foods they provide our communities beyond this week. Let us continue to discuss and implement programs that will increase access to healthy foods, and let us make it a priority throughout the year.

For more information on CLF’s Healthy Food Finance Program, please visit our website or contact Anna Hamilton at anna@sccommunityloanfund.org.