SNAP Up Those Plants and Seeds

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

I just stumbled across a little-known USDA program (thanks to a mention in Civil Eats) that deserves publicity. For nearly 40 years, people who use food stamps have been able to use them to buy vegetable seeds and plants for their own gardens.

The 1973 Farm Bill included an amendment to the Food Stamp Act that enabled food stamp recipients to use their stamps to buy seeds or vegetable plants. As any gardener knows, a few dollars worth of seeds can yield a return of $50 or even $100 worth of food. Senator James Allen of Alabama, who proposed the amendment, noted that “the recipients of food stamps would thus be able to use their own initiative to produce fruits and vegetables needed to provide variety and nutritional value for their diets.”

This may not apply to you because you aren’t enrolled in what is now called SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), but you know people who are. In April, 2011, nearly 45 million Americans depended on SNAP help to feed themselves and their families. That number isn’t going down any time soon.

It may not apply this year, because your garden is already underway and your growing season is too short for much more planting, but there’s always next year, and there are vegetables that do well if planted in the fall for harvesting in early spring.

And if you think you don’t have enough space for a garden, maybe you’ve set your sights too high. No patch of dirt is too small, and there are community garden plots all over the place. When I was a child in a Philadelphia row house, during World War II, my family had a victory garden in an unpromising-looking sandy patch about six feet square. We grew tomatoes and stringbeans enough to can for the winter. We were city folk to the hilt, with no idea of how to nourish the dirt and turn it into soil. We had to separate table scraps from trash – the city picked up both, but in separate containers – but “compost” was not in our vocabulary. Still, our little garden fed us.

Seeds and plants have a will to live as strong as any human being’s. What you must bring to the garden are water in a dry spell and a commitment to protect it from being overwhelmed by weeds. Of course you get more yield if you can add nourishment for the soil, but the important thing is to start. And who wouldn’t want to turn a $2 packet of seeds or a young plant into $50 worth of food?

It may take some doing to find a SNAP-authorized retailer that sells plants and seeds, but it doesn’t take a lot of energy to ask where you already shop. And many farmers’ markets are now authorized to accept SNAP payments. You can do a search here. (Click the “Payment Accepted” tab, then check the box next to “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, and select your state from the dropdown menu).”

There’s more information at SNAP Gardens. The site is new and is trying to collect (confidentially) stories from people who have grown food using SNAP benefits. They’re also trying to connect people with available garden plots with those who want to use them. The site is multilingual, too. Look for the list box titled “Select a language” at the bottom of each page.

Here’s a really nice opportunity for you or someone you know. Pass it on.

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