This summer, users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—commonly known as food stamps—can show their benefits card to catch a free ride to Greater Lafayette farmer’s markets—and, in West Lafayette, make their money go twice as far through a new program that doubles their benefits.
Greg Seiters is trying to decide if the extra funds outweigh the wait time.
“Well,” Seiters says, “generally, they’re on time.”
He’s waiting at a CityBus stop near his Lafayette home on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon.
“This deal at the West Lafayette farmer’s market should be interesting,” Seiters says.
Seiters, who’s on disability, divides his food budget between SNAP, stops at the food pantry, and visits to the supermarket. He loves what he calls the “convivial” atmosphere at the Saturday Lafayette farmer’s market, but today Seiters is headed to the West Lafayette farmer’s market.
“I do still have a car to use, but that might not always be available in the future, because it’s—not on its last legs, it’s like on the last three wheels,” Seiters says. “It has a repair due that I cannot really afford right now.”
The bus arrives, and Seiters boards. It’s the first leg of his journey from Lafayette to West Lafayette.
“For some people, it is out of the way to go to the West Lafayette farmer's market,” says West Lafayette market coordinator Julia Zuchkov. “But we want to make sure that they feel like it's worthwhile when they get there, you know?"
Zuchkov is spearheading West Lafayette’s SNAP effort. She, and others, hope the financial incentives of the Double Up program and the free CityBus rides will attract more SNAP customers over time.
She says there wasn’t much participation at the start of the season—one or two people per market—but that number has increased in recent weeks. SNAP programs at farmer’s markets can take a few years to settle in and become successful. Zuchkov started this season with $1,000 in funding from the development department for the Double Up program.
"I would love for there to be so much demand that we just run out of grant money,” Zuchkov says. “That would be great. Because that means that there's a need for it, and then we know that we need to meet that need."
The bus takes Seiters to the CityBus Center downtown, where he just misses his connection, and has to wait for the next one. Now Seiters is making his way down the sidewalk towards Cumberland Park.
“Okay,” Seiters says, “we’re hoofing it again.”
Now, about an hour after his journey began, he stands at the information table at the West Lafayette market, getting ready to swipe his card.
"How do I do this?” Seiters says. “I don't really remember how much money I have left on it.”
“Okay,” says Kyle Puetz, the SNAP outreach coordinator for Food Finders Food Bank. “We should be able to check your balance here.”
Puetz informs Seiters his benefits balance is $6.34. He doubles that amount, and—twelve wooden tokens in hand—starts to make the circuit of booths.
“Oh…I see something I like,” Seiters says. “Sugar snap peas."
Seiters picks up the peas, then buys some granola. He has enough tokens for one more item—and he finds it at a table of honey-filled plastic bears.
"Irresistible,” Seiters says. “A little $2 bear. So! I've spent all my money!”
He laughs. Then it’s back to the bus stop, and two busses home. Because the busses arrive and depart on a thirty-minute rotation, Seiters doesn’t linger.
CityBus outreach coordinator Hallie Robinson says 37 people got on and off the inbound and outbound bus that stops closest to the West Lafayette market in May during the hours of the market, and 27 people in June. Data for the three bus stops closest to the Lafayette farmer’s market show 323 total riders during the same period during the Saturday markets. But her data isn’t specific enough to tell how many riders attended the markets.
"A lot of people, once they learn to ride the bus, they usually use the same routes, to go to the same places, at the same time,” Robinson says, adding that some Lafayette customers might not have as much experience navigating the bus system in West Lafayette—or attending the farmer’s market.
“Our base fare is a dollar,” says CityBus manager of development Bryce Gibson. “So we’re talking about saving someone a dollar. And if it’s worth it for someone to save that dollar—or two dollars round trip—that’s a very vulnerable population, and we want to be there to act as a safety net, if we can.”
On the other side of town, the Lafayette market—while participating in the CityBus program—does not have a Double Up program of its own.
"Not yet,” says Rebecca Jones, who’s just six weeks into managing the farmer’s market for Greater Lafayette Commerce. “We're looking for funding for it. So once we find and secure funding and put it into a plan, we would definitely love to incorporate something similar."
Jones’s background includes experience in benefits counseling, helping people navigate programs like Medicaid and SNAP. With that population in mind, she says she wants to increase access to the market for everyone—though she also says she’s conscious of the stigma that can surround SNAP use.
"I don't want to put a bullseye on anyone and say, 'Oh, you're over here at this tent!'—that's just going to turn people away,” Jones says.
At the end of June, the Lafayette market had passed out about 240 one-dollar tokens, while the West Lafayette market had distributed about 600 (or $300 worth, doubled). The closeness of those numbers might come as a surprise to some vendors, several of whom say they’ve gotten many more tokens at West Lafayette this year. Nancy Strack from Longhouse Farms says she’s received 87 so far at the West Lafayette market—and, she estimates, only about five in Lafayette.
It’s difficult to assess if more SNAP users live in Lafayette or West Lafayette, because record-keeping is only done at the county level. But the downtown Lafayette market is in the middle of a food desert, where healthy food is harder to come by. It’s an area where twice the amount of SNAP dollars could be a big help.
Though Greg Seiters is out of SNAP dollars, he’s sitting at the Lafayette market the weekend after his trip to the West Lafayette market, sipping from a tiny paper cup of coffee and greeting passersby.
"Well, you know, you see so many people here,” Seiters says, pausing to call out “Hi!” to a friend.
The trip here was more convenient for him, but his money now has more purchasing power in West Lafayette. So...does he think it’s worth the trip?
“I don’t know,” Seiters says. “It’s very much a tossup.”
*CityBus and Greater Lafayette Commerce are financial supporters of WBAA.