Market Bucks, a statewide program that offers incentives to low-income Minnesotans to buy produce from farmers markets, has fended off fears that it might run out of funding this month.

In the recent special session, the Legislature fully funded the $325,000 program within the two-year state government budget bill.

Market Bucks had been cut from the Senate agriculture budget, prompting concern from nonprofits that more than 13,000 Minnesotans who use the program would lose their benefits starting July 1.

"To get this back to full funding was an amazing win," said Leah Gardner, policy director at the advocacy group Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "I do feel like this was really affirming to have legislators on both sides of the aisle, and champions new and long-standing, who spoke out to make this happen."

The program helps Minnesotans who qualify for food stamps — also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — by matching $10 in SNAP funding with $10 in Market Bucks, enabling them to buy up to $20 of SNAP-eligible food at local farmers markets.

The Legislature's funding means the program will continue without disruption for the next two years. Market Bucks has received state aid every year since 2015.

Supporters already are eyeing possible expansion of the program and have applied for a federal grant that would match the state's dollars in 2022 and double the program's budget.

Amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, more Minnesotans visited food shelves in 2020 than in any other year on record. The amount of money redeemed through Market Bucks was up by nearly 80% in May compared with the same period one year ago.

Besides helping low-income residents, the program supports farmers at 100 markets statewide from Bemidji to Winona.

"We have been seeing increased demand. Indications are we're going to have high demand this year," Gardner said. "Now that many legislators did hear about the program, we hope that will set us up to be able to expand it."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141