Opinion: Healthy food for all

By Sara Berney, Executive Director

Originally featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Op-Ed, March 18, 2015

Across our state, low-income families and individuals find it difficult to access food, let alone fresh, nutritious food. Reliance on cheap, unhealthy food contributes to a serious health issue for Georgia, where 30 percent of adults and 35 percent of children are obese.

In Georgia, almost 2 million people receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) benefits. The high cost and low accessibility of fresh food, compared to the relative low cost and high availability of processed foods, leaves them with limited options to feed their families.

Wholesome Wave Georgia believes all Georgians should have access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food. We focus our efforts on those Georgians, considered food-insecure, through a Double Value Coupon Program. It encourages people to rethink the accessibility and affordability of fresh, wholesome foods.

The coupon program makes it possible to double every SNAP dollar from $1 to $2 at nearly 40 partner farmers markets in Georgia, increasing the consumption of fresh, healthy, locally produced food by SNAP recipients. This means more money for farmers, and more healthy food for underserved, low-income Georgia communities where such food is often sparse, expensive and low-quality.

Since 2009, Wholesome Wave has grown from three partner farmers markets to a network of nearly 40. Operating the coupon program in 25 cities throughout the state, we are a true statewide network that stretches from metro Atlanta to Valdosta, from Pine Mountain to Savannah.

On Feb. 27, we hosted our first SNAP merchant sign-up day for Georgia farmers markets and farmers. We partnered with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, MarketLinkTM (a program of the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs), and the Atlanta Community Food Bank to assist interested farmers markets and farmers in becoming authorized to accept SNAP.

During the sign-up, 12 farmers markets and 23 farmers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits, bringing the total number of authorized farmers markets and farmers in Georgia to 110, a 47-percent increase.

Through the success of the SNAP authorization event, we are beginning to envision a Georgia where all farmers markets not only accept, but double SNAP dollars as partners of our coupon program. We envision a Georgia where all individuals have the opportunity to support local farmers and strengthen their local food economies. We have an incredible opportunity to connect SNAP recipients with farmers markets and healthy eating habits, and make healthy, fresh, locally sourced food accessible to all no matter their location in the state.

Since initiation of the coupon program in 2009, Wholesome Wave has distributed more than $547,000 in healthy food incentives to Georgia SNAP recipients. This represents more than $1 million dollars in healthy, locally grown food to SNAP recipients and income for the state’s farmers.

Unfortunately, only 23 percent of Georgia’s 141 farmers markets are authorized to accept SNAP. What if all 141 participated? This would expand the customer base and increase the local share of SNAP dollars put back into the community.