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Emery Davis, 2, scopes out some fresh basil on the first day of the Clark Fork Market in May of 2017. 

A program that gives people in Missoula County who are eligible for so-called “food stamps” the ability to double their purchasing power when buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers has become a victim of its own success.

Roughly 6,000 people in Missoula County have incomes low enough that they qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which until 2008 was called the Food Stamp Program. For example, a family of four would have to have a monthly net income of $2,025 or less to qualify for the program.

The average benefit per person is roughly $4.20 per day, according to Kim Gilchrist, the food access program manager at the nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) in Missoula. Even people who get the maximum benefits only get about $6 per day.

Last year, CFAC got a $94,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow people to double their purchasing power of SNAP benefits when they used them at the Clark Fork Market, the Missoula Farmers Market, the Missoula Food Cooperative and the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The goal is to increase the consumption of produce while also boosting local farmers.

“It helps stretch the SNAP benefit further, adds more veggies into their diet and supports local farmers,” Gilchrist explained. “Folks who use the Double SNAP Dollars program are so excited to shop at a farmers’ market and be able to afford the high-quality foods they would prefer to buy. This program helps them afford such foods on a regular basis, rather than having to make hard choices between quality and quantity.”

The program was popular, and the 500 people who used the Double SNAP Program in 2015 nearly doubled to 900 people in 2016. The problem, though, is that the money is starting to run out.

“The funding won’t sustain the current participation rate,” explained Krystin Gehrich, the development and communications coordinator at CFAC.

In fact, before the grant money came in, the funding that sustained the Double SNAP Program would run out in the first hour of the farmers market. And now, even with the grant, CFAC is unsure it will be able to continue the program through the rest of the farmers market season this fall. It hopes to raise $16,000 to finish out the year, and so far it's gotten about $6,000.

It also get support from local nonprofits: the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, United Way of Missoula County, Missoula Federal Credit Union and PacificSource Foundation. But it needs federal funding to really help all those who want to participate.

Negotiations are underway in the U.S. House of Representatives for what will be included in the 2018 Farm Bill, but a draft budget resolution earlier this month showed a nearly $150 million cut to the SNAP program, Gehrich said.

That’s why, to celebrate Hunger Action Month, the CFAC is in the midst of what it calls a “SNAP Challenge,” which enlists a group of volunteers to live on $5 worth of food per day for up to a week and record the challenges.

“While eating on a budget of $5 a day for only seven days will never come close to fully understanding the struggles that thousands of Montanans face, it does help those taking the challenge experience a glimpse into these struggles,” Gilchrist said. “We hope participants will gain a new perspective that will spur advocacy efforts to support increased access to healthy and local foods.”

“As Congress prepares to shape SNAP policy, it is important to recognize the difficulty of living on a SNAP budget to simultaneously avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods and stay healthy with limited resources,” Gehrich added.

Several people who qualify for SNAP benefits are on CFAC’s Board of Directors, and they encouraged the organization not to choose the average benefit of $4.20 because they wanted to show that, even using a higher-than-average benefit of $5 per day, it’s still a struggle.

“Some of the comments we’ve received so far have been how difficult it is to shop at a grocery store on such a limited budget,” Gilchrist explained. “You have to make a lot of quantity-over-quality decisions.

"And so when we work with people who use the Double SNAP Program, it’s amazing the amount of veggies for even an extra $5 per day you can get, and how much more variety that adds to the last part of the week.”

Participants and supporters of the project are holding a closing celebration at Imagine Nation Brewing on Tuesday, Sept. 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Folks will get a beer for donating $10, and there will be raffle prizes for Patagonia apparel, gift certificates and local artwork.

Email Gilchrist at kim@missoulacfac.org with questions about the program

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