When economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic left more people with less food on the table, the Virginia Community Food Connections made sure they found as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible.
Headed by Elizabeth Borst, the VCFC has operated for more than 10 years and has grown to include six markets in the Fredericksburg area and one in Prince William County. All local markets saw increases in 2020 in the amount of fresh food sold as a result of the VCFC incentives, including the Ladysmith market in Caroline County, where program-related sales increased by 292 percent, Borst said.
The VCFC programs offer incentives for low-income people to get more for their shopping dollar at local farmers markets, and Borst says the effort helps support family farmers who grow the tomatoes and beans, corn, squash and watermelons.
Those who receive SNAP benefits—formerly called food stamps—use their cards to get a dollar in free fruits or vegetables for each one spent on fresh food, up to a $40 match. The WIC Healthy Food Incentive offers a similar program that helps get locally grown items onto the table for women and their infant children. In addition, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, can be used at markets for double their value.
The VCFC operates in seven area farmers’ markets: one each in Fredericksburg, King George County and Dale City in Prince William County; and two markets each in Caroline and Spotsylvania counties. The fresh-match incentive has grown into one of the largest in the state as it represents more than 30 percent of all SNAP spending at farmers markets throughout Virginia. VCFC programs account for more than $200,000 in sales regionwide.
In 2020, when people lost their jobs from COVID-19 shutdowns and found themselves in line for food for the first time, more took advantage of the food incentives the VCFC offers, Borst said. Program usage grew by 115 percent at the Bowling Green market; 88 percent in Fredericksburg; 80 percent in King George and 70 percent in both Spotsylvania markets.
By comparison, sales grew by about 20 percent in 2019, Borst said. She attributed the dramatic increases to several factors: More people received SNAP benefits for the first time because of economic losses; the Pandemic EBT cards were given to low-income families to match the value of meals their children would have received in schools; and shopping outside appealed to more people in the midst of COVID-19 concerns.
“Lots of folks preferred shopping at the farmers market instead of the grocery store as a safe way to get food in an outdoor setting,” Borst said. “They also wanted to support local farmers and have fewer hands touching the food.”
More than 36,000 pounds of fresh produce was delivered through the various agencies that partner with VCFC, and more than 1,200 households in the community had nutritious food on the table. The programs also helped area farmers earn more than $250,000 in additional revenue, Borst said.
As the pandemic has increased the number of people facing food insecurity, there’s been a renewed communitywide effort to address the need. The Fredericksburg Food Access Forum meets monthly to focus on programs that “offer struggling residents multiple ways to access the food support they need,” Borst said.