A statewide program that encourages low-income Minnesotans to buy fresh produce from local farmers markets is at risk of running out of funding July 1.

Nonprofits are urging legislators this week to include the program, Market Bucks, in the state budget. The $325,000 program, which is entirely funded by state dollars, helps local farmers across the state and about 13,000 low-income Minnesotans annually. It has received state aid every year since 2015.

Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide advocacy group, is lobbying lawmakers while looking for private donations to fill the gap and applying for a federal grant that would match the state's funds.

"We have seen the program increasingly in demand with COVID," said Leah Gardner, policy director at Hunger Solutions. "I'm truly hopeful that lawmakers will figure out a way to support this. We can't afford to lose this program."

Minnesotans who qualify for food stamps — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — are eligible for Market Bucks, which matches $10 in SNAP funding with $10 in Market Bucks, enabling them to buy up to $20 of SNAP-eligible food.

The program was cut from the Senate agriculture budget. Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who chairs the Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee, told the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday that the program didn't have widespread support.

"This program essentially allows to double dip for anybody on SNAP, and the whole overall view was there's other priorities or areas that are also competing for funding," he told the committee. Westrom didn't respond to an interview request.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, told the Finance Committee that funding Market Bucks through the state government budget bill, which is where Market Bucks has been funded in years past, was being discussed but no final decisions had been made.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators supported Market Bucks in the House agriculture budget before it drew criticism from Senate Republicans, said Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield. He said it's part of the debate on whether farmers market growers should be considered part of the larger agriculture community in budget talks.

"This is an incredibly important program," Lippert said. "We need to be aware of the families that depend on it and also have a broad view of what agriculture is. Agriculture is also the small farmers providing food at farmers markets. Some members of the Legislature don't see them as real farmers."

Increased need

About 100 markets participate in Market Bucks across the state, from Bemidji to Duluth, St. Cloud and Winona.

In Grand Rapids, Kent Lorentzen sells radishes, beets and other produce he grows at the city's farmers market. Market Bucks provides low-income residents an extra reason to shop there and get fresh foods not available in grocery stores, he said. Lorentzen, who is the market's treasurer, said residents who qualify for SNAP bought $28,000 worth of food at the market last year subsidized by SNAP and Market Bucks, helping boost sales for farmers like him.

"It's a program that does a lot of good," he said.

COVID-19 underscored the important role of local farmers in the economy, as grocery stores struggled with bare shelves at the start of the pandemic and outbreaks hit meat-processing plants.

The pandemic also led to economic fallout, with more Minnesotans visiting food shelves in 2020 than any other year on record.

In May, the amount of money redeemed through the Market Bucks program at farmers markets — $5,986 — increased by nearly 80% from May 2020.

"I can't believe that the ag committee isn't connecting the dots," said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association. "That was the only way [low-income Minnesotans] could get local produce."

While low-income residents can also buy fresh fruits and vegetables through SNAP at grocery stores, Market Bucks offers incentives to buy produce from local farmers, Zeman said.

"There are more produce farmers than pig farmers, and yet no one ever talks about the produce farmers," Zeman said, adding that markets are made up of local farmers who don't receive aid from the federal farm bill.

"It helps our Minnesota farmers … who do not receive subsidies in any other manner like commodity farms," she said.

In St. Paul, the 14 markets that accept Market Bucks typically wind up redeeming about one-third of all vouchers in the state. Without Market Bucks, David Kotsonas, director of operations at the St. Paul Farmers Market, worries that vendors will lose business from all SNAP recipients. Between Market Bucks and SNAP, low-income Minnesotans bought about $160,000 in food from St. Paul markets last year.

"This program is small; it's not a big expensive program," he said. "And while it may not be on the radar of a lot of people … it's important to every family who receives it."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141