Portland Food Co-op and The Farm Stand Launch Low-Income Access Program

By Ramona du Houx

The Portland Food Co-op and The Farm Stand launched “Maine Harvest Bucks” on July 26,2016, a program that will help low-income shoppers purchase more local food using food stamps. Customers using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP food stamps) will receive $5 of bonus local fruits and vegetables for every $10 spent on local SNAP-eligible items.

“Maine Harvest Bucks allow me to stretch my benefits out enough to afford more local fresh organic food, said David Bishop - a Co-op shopper who was one of the first to sign up for the new program. “When I heard about the ‘Harvest Bucks’ program, I thought it was too good to be true.”

Anyone who receives SNAP benefits can sign up at the Co-op to participate in Maine Harvest Bucks.

With Food Co-ops on the rise in Maine, offering SNAP benifits helps promote their core principal:  to provide the community with healthy food. 

Participants receive a $5 voucher to spend on local fruits and veggies for every $10 they spend on all local foods. Participants also receive a $5 voucher when they sign up for the program, and for every time they refer another person to sign up for the program.

To sign up, simply ask a Co-op employee or cashier for a Maine Harvest Bucks sign up form, fill out the survey, and get your first $5 voucher.

Anyone using the vouchers from the Co-op can also earn and redeem them at The Farm StandBelfast Co-opBlue Hill Co-opGood Tern Co-op, and Rising Tide Community Market

Portland Food Co-op and the Farm Stand are part of a group of six markets implementing the same incentive program, called “Maine Harvest Bucks,” with support from Maine Farmland Trust (MFT). There are additional retail locations offering slightly different incentives across the state, still under the umbrella of Maine Harvest Bucks.

"At the Portland Food Co-op, our mission is about bringing together local producers and consumers so that we’re growing a healthier community and more sustainable food system,” said Mary Alice Scott, Community Engagement Manager at Portland Food Co-op. “This program is a perfect example of the Co-op’s mission come to life. Maine Harvest Bucks will help lower barriers so that more members of our community can eat well and support local farmers."

Similar incentive programs that provide bonus fruits and vegetables for SNAP customers have proven successful and continue to expand at farmers’ markets in Maine, and have also been extended to Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), mobile markets, and farm stands.

"Maine Harvest Bucks gives us an opportunity to share our showcase of Maine’s agricultural bounty to more people across a greater cross-section of lifestyles and backgrounds,” said Joe Fournier, manager and co-owner of The Farm Stand. “Our main goal is to encourage the consumption, and access, of local, fresh and healthy food. That’s why we are excited to be a part of this program that includes everyone in the achievement of that goal.”

Last year, MFT received a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant through the United States Department of Agriculture to broaden nutrition incentives beyond direct-to-consumer outlets like farmers’ markets and into retail stores and other farm aggregators. This is one of the only retail-based incentive programs across the nation focusing exclusively on local products.

“We’re trying to find new ways to bridge the gap between Maine farmers and consumers,” said  Shannon Grimes, who manages the program at Maine Farmland Trust. “Retail locations like co-ops are often more familiar to customers who are used to shopping at grocery stores, and by offering local-based incentives, we can increase sales and market opportunities for Maine farms.”

Maine Harvest Bucks is part of a growing part of the food movement to ensure that fresh, healthy food is accessible to everyone.

Michel Nischan, CEO & Founder of Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit working to increase affordable access to healthy food, commented: "Wholesome Wave is proud to continue our long-standing partnership with Maine Farmland Trust and support this unique, exciting effort. Nutrition incentive programs at farmers markets already reach thousands of low-income Mainers. Making nutrition incentives available at grocery stores will scale impact to hundreds of more families. By making local produce more affordable, this program improves the diets and health of families who need it most, while boosting the bottom line for Maine's small and mid-sized farms. It's an all-around win for the community."

Program participation expects to gain momentum as word spreads. The Farm Stand and Portland Food Co-op welcome all customers, and hope to attract new customers with this program. The Co-op will hold a “Maine Harvest Bucks Sign Up Day” on Tuesday, August 2nd from 4-7pm. Customers can sign up for the program anytime, and receive their first $5 voucher for local fruits and veggies when they sign up.

Participating retail locations offering the same incentive program currently include Belfast Co-op, Blue Hill Co-op, Good Tern Co-op, and Rising Tide Community Market. Other farm aggregators include Lakeside Family Farm, Machias Marketplace, the Morris Farm Store, The Pickup, and Unity Food Hub.

This new program was piloted successfully in March at the Belfast Co-op, whose staff has been essential in helping expand the program to other similar markets.

"Being a Cooperative, we are guided by the Seven Cooperative Principles. During this project, we were able to embrace three of those values:

  • Concern for Community,
  • Education, Training & Information,
  • and Cooperation Among Cooperatives.

"Fighting food insecurity and promoting local farmers is ingrained in our community focus. Helping this project reach throughout Maine was very meaningful for us and beautifully illustrates how a combined effort can have a huge impact." said POS Coordinator, Heather Q Hay Brackett, who led the implementation and successful launch of the pilot Harvest Bucks program for the Belfast Co-op.

For more information, visit maineharvestbucks.org/retail or contact Shannon Grimes, Farm Viability Associate at Maine Farmland Trust, shannon@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

Maine Harvest Bucks nutrition incentives (bonus fruits and vegetables for SNAP recipients) are also available at many farmers’ markets, CSAs, food hubs, and farm stands throughout the state. For more information, visit maineharvestbucks.org.