Local farmers markets help address growing hunger crisis

Camron Ridge Farmstead co-owner Liz Shinn sells fresh produce, pre-made homestyle meals and baked goods at a Corvallis farmers market.

Sunlight beams into jars of honey at the downtown Corvallis farmers market, casting an amber glow on the early Wednesday morning. The tangy aroma of fresh-cut cilantro mingles with peppery arugula. Shoppers chatter, couples walk hand-in-hand, and kids run around squealing.

Corvallis-Albany Farmers’ Markets and others like them provide communities with a common space to gather and eat nutritious food.

Now, local and statewide advocates want to ensure these spaces are accessible to everyone, including those experiencing financial hardship and from historically marginalized groups. That’s why they’re using incentive programs to help those most in need.

“If you have the absolute best possible nutrition, you’re going to be able to do your absolute best,” said Rebecca Landis, who runs the Corvallis-Albany markets. “This is a good thing for society as a whole.”

The number of Oregonians facing food insecurity has surged in the wake of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, one in 11 Oregonians was food insecure, meaning they didn’t always know where their next meal would come from.

The pandemic made things worse. As many Americans lost their jobs and inflation skyrocketed, the federal government enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, directing emergency allotments to people who qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, in addition to their monthly benefits.

But those expired in March. Even as the need continues, households are receiving at least $95 less per month to spend on groceries, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, D.C.

As of May, the number of food-insecure Oregonians has grown to one in five, according to the Oregon Food Bank.

Incomes, Landis said, pay for housing, food and other necessities. “And the reality is that many people who are working don’t make enough money to do all those things,” she said.

More than 10,200 residents in Benton County, where Corvallis is located, were experiencing food insecurity last year, according to the Oregon Hunger Task Force, a group convened by the state Legislature. Of those, 70% qualify for federal assistance like SNAP.

With funding from the Farmers Market Fund, a Portland nonprofit, the Corvallis-Albany markets have implemented an incentive program known as Double Up Food Bucks. It is a nationwide push to help customers stretch their food budgets.

When SNAP-eligible customers arrive at Corvallis-Albany markets, they can go to an information booth and present their Oregon Trail Card. Just like withdrawing money from an ATM, shoppers receive tokens to spend on SNAP-eligible products, including most groceries.

The market then matches that value — dollar for dollar, up to $20 — in currency meant exclusively for produce, including fruits, vegetables, beans and herbs.

In other words, customers can walk away with up to $40 of fresh, local, nutritionally-dense food, which they may not have been able to afford otherwise, at half the cost to them.

Vendors accepting Double Up Food Bucks display signs for shoppers at a Corvallis farmers market. The incentive program helps shoppers in need stretch their benefits further.

Rachael Ward, the executive director of the Farmers Market Fund, said the program allows shoppers to pick the food they want.

Ward knows how important this kind of independence and dignity is, since she and her partner were previously food insecure after being laid off.

“I experienced firsthand how much stigma is related to even using SNAP benefits or going to food pantries,” she said. “We all want to be able to choose the type of food that we want to eat and make sure that it’s relevant for our culture and our diets.”

Customers are not the only ones benefiting from the Double Up program. It also helps local farmers stay in business.

In 2022, the Farmers Market Fund surveyed 139 farmers statewide. Nearly 90% of farmers said they made more money because of the Double Up program. More than 80% said they have a new customer base because of it, too.

Liz Shinn, the co-owner of Camron Ridge Farmstead and a vendor at the Corvallis-Albany market, said she’s had to hire new employees to keep up with the increased demand.

Food advocates are also working to break down stereotypes around who utilizes SNAP benefits and who a “typical” market shopper is.

Data shows that nearly half of SNAP recipients are white, non-Latino individuals, and two-thirds have children.

Shinn said she’s seen a wider range of customers in terms of age since the program began. These markets, she said with a laugh, aren’t “just for old people anymore.”

Ward said she wants to see farmers markets continue the work of becoming more inclusive.

“Even if you have a program,” she said about Double Up, “if people don’t feel comfortable going to the market, they’re not going to use (it).”

-Claire Coffey, Grant High School

-Avneet Dhaliwal, West Albany High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.