SNAP means healthy food for families

Theo and I consider our trips to the farmers market the highlight of our week. You know that by now. But this Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about the many moms who don’t feel they have that luxury. They want to feed their children the most nutritious, healthy food available yet they avoid farmers markets, fearing they can’t afford the prices. Low-income mothers in Maine – where about 20 percent of the population receive federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits – are hungry for a more fulfilling way to feed their families.

Working mom Samantha Ricker, 35, the author of “The Maine Conscious Consumer,” is leading the charge. I met Ricker, her sons Seamus, 7, and Dylan Philbrick, 9, and her musician boyfriend, Kai Dennett, at the opening day of the outdoor Bath Farmers’ Market in Waterfront Park last Saturday. The concurrent annual Mayfair Festival ushered in spring, with larger-than-usual crowds promenading along the Kennebec River, hula-hooping to the drum circle beats and dancing around the maypole. Optimism was in the air.

Ricker grew up in blue-collar Baldwin. She and her dad graduated from the University of Southern Maine the same year (he’d gone back to school after several decades as a contractor; otherwise she’d have been the first in her family to graduate from college). She went on to earn a master’s degree in sustainable business, as well, saddling her with $80,000 in student debt. Food stamps have helped her get by for almost 11 years. Ricker’s expenses include rent and utilities for her Bath apartment, although she lives in a building owned by her parents, who live downstairs.

Ricker’s family of four keeps, for the most part, to a strict $100 a week grocery budget, less than many peers spend at Wal-Mart, she says. Still, she burns through SNAP benefits two-and-a-half weeks into each month. When she divorced two years ago, her nearly $500 a month benefit was cut almost in half, just as her income went down. “That was a struggle,” Ricker says.

Still, she refuses to settle for processed foods and factory-farmed meat. Instead, she’s one of 30 SNAP customers (primarily families) who’ve cashed in their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for twice the amount in tokens at a new booth that appeared at the Bath market last September. There are many more to serve: some 25 percent of Bath residents, or almost 1,100 households, on average a month receive food stamps, according to reports from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Independence.

Each month when her SNAP card refills, Ricker now swipes off $20, which doubles to $40 in market tokens, thanks to a dollar-for-dollar matching grant (up to $25 per market visit) that Access Health (an organization that brings together non-profits to promote healthy living in Sagadahoc County, Brunswick and Harpswell) secured from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That also funds a $10 bonus every third time Ricker uses SNAP at the market. Ricker and Dennett use the extra dollars for choice items not found at the grocery store – fresh shiitake mushrooms from Oyster Creek in Damariscotta, sausage from The Turkey Farm in New Sharon, and discounted Blue Velvet cheese from Hahn’s End in Phippsburg. They wring four meals out of a single pound of ground turkey.

“Then, I’ll do the rest of our shopping at Brackett’s, Shaw’s, sometimes Bath Natural Market,” Ricker said. “But I know I’m getting a few things. I’m helping out the economy, and I’m eating something that’s good for me and not crap.”

Ricker and her family rarely eat meat – and not because they don’t like it. They hold out for more expensive pastured product from local farms, like Bisson & Sons Meat Market in Topsham, which accepts SNAP. Seamus and Dylan remember the time their mom came home with a 15-pound Santa sack of late-season kale for just $15; the boys helped her rip, parboil and seal it in freezer bags to see them through winter. Local vegetables star in pastas and stir-fries, shepherd’s pie and tacos made with organic tempeh from Lalibela Farm in Bowdoinham.

For years, Ricker also bought weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares with regular deductions to her SNAP card. This summer, she hopes to buy a half-share from Goranson Farm. Lalibela, in fact, was her first CSA in 2009 – she found them while she was searching for any farms that accepted SNAP. More and more CSAs in Maine do now, including Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon and Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred; Ricker actually helped the two submit their USDA applications for the EBT systems required to process SNAP. MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) had a grant to help member farms overcome the biggest hurdle: purchasing the $600-plus card readers.

Main Street Bath, where Ricker works as the director’s assistant, helped the Bath market’s program launch, coordinating logistics with the Bath Freight Shed Alliance and Access Health. Access Health is funding a similar SNAP matching-incentive at the Crystal Spring Market in Brunswick this month. Once it’s up and running, that will make 13 markets in Maine – from Augusta to Bangor to Waterville – that kick in a bonus for customers who pay with SNAP.

But many low-income moms struggle not just with affording healthy food, but also with how to cook economically and nutritiously. That why the Bath Freight Shed Alliance hopes to build a certified kitchen, where low-income shoppers can learn to cook with market produce. These skills are especially important since, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health, our country’s poorest families are disproportionately overweight or obese.

So Ricker may not, at first glance, seem like the typical SNAP user. She went to graduate school to study “sustainable communities”– she even wrote a book on it. She’s passionate about cooking and healthy food, and has stability in her life that many living on the edge economically lack – a job, a partner, an apartment. Even so, Ricker reminds us not to stereotype an inherently diverse population: the one in five Mainers on food stamps.

Bath SNAP coordinator Jill Kornrumpf could have used such help when on food stamps herself. She was suffering from Lyme disease and out of work. Her elementary school-age kids had to settle for a couple varieties of apples at the store. Today SNAP moms in Bath can choose from 20 types of still-affordable apples grown by the guy up the road.

“When I heard about this opportunity, I wanted to do anything I could to make it available to people so they have choice,” Kornrumpf said.

Stay-at-home moms like Jody Savage, whom I met at the Bath market, said she avoided the farmers market until two months ago. Now she loads up on greens, thanks to SNAP.

“I’m just filling my fridge with veggies,” Savage said. “And the kids love them. We make tons of salads…If you don’t have a lot of money, you kind of turn away and just assume you have to go get the cheap ends. But you don’t.”

Except for the delicious broken cheese ends that Hahn’s End sells Ricker at market for just 50 cents or $1. More often, Ricker will round out meals, such as the risotto below, with deli cheese heels and expiring cheese and yogurt marked down at Shaw’s.

Ricker couldn’t work in the nonprofit sector without such assistance. It’s made her a better community member, she says. Multiplying the local impact of your money at farmers’ markets, for her, is an antidote to the stigma and shame some feel about being on food stamps.

“If you use it, don’t abuse it,” Ricker says. “Don’t waste it on candy, soft drinks and sugary cereals.”

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. You can reach her through her blog BaltimOregon.com, and follow her on Twitter @BaltimOregon.