February 16, 2023. News&Observer. By Anna Dodson.

The writer is a UNC Medical School student and NC Schweitzer Fellow.

More than one in every 10 North Carolinians are food insecure, meaning they cannot afford enough food for a healthy life.

The consequences of hunger are grave: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression, anxiety, asthma, poor brain function, and early death have all been linked to poor food access.

How does a state with an identity deeply rooted in farming have such a problem with hunger? Complex food systems have separated local food production from the everyday North Carolinian. Yet, we have an untapped opportunity to reconnect farmers with their hungry neighbors — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps).

SNAP allows recipients to buy local produce at partnering farmers markets. Recipients cash in their benefits for vouchers that can be used at farm stands. Then, farmers redeem those vouchers for payment from the market management team.

Hungry North Carolinians gain access to nutritious food, while farmers receive fair payment for their hard work. It’s a win-win.

The program has been steadily growing, but North Carolina has plenty of room to improve. Less than half of North Carolina’s 235 farmers markets accept SNAP. Why? Perhaps it requires more volunteers or employees than smaller farmers markets can support. Infrastructure barriers, like spotty internet access and costly EBT machines, also limit implementation. Some farmers market managers may not know that the program exists.

Bringing awareness is an easy first step to broaden SNAP’s reach.

Anyone can contact their local county Extension Office to see if the program is available. If you are a farmer or a market manager, the Farmers Market Coalition and RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table Program provide helpful resources and grant opportunities to help you start accepting SNAP. We can all help ensure that our neighbors have access to a basic human need — food. Even better, if we can benefit our local farmers’ revenue in the process.

Anna Dodson, Chapel Hill

2022-23 NC Schweitzer Fellow