Written by Anne Harney, AmeriCorps Summer VISTA Outreach Coordinator
If you walk past South Park in Billings on a summer Thursday afternoon, you’ll see the small but mighty Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market, which is made possible every week by the hard work of the market team, including market manager, Maia Dickerson. Maia made Billings her home in 2010 and became involved in the Gardeners’ Market a few years later. In 2017, she stepped into the role of market manager. While this is the first market she has managed, she has long been an avid customer of farmers’ markets and advocate for local food, and she enjoys working with a great team to offer this market to the Billings community.
The Gardeners’ Market is a mission-focused market supported by the Healthy By Design Coalition. The goal of the market is to provide an affordable access point for high-quality produce. The market team manages to keep the cost of market goods low by not requiring a vendor fee. Their vendors are mostly backyard gardeners who have extra produce to sell, but they also have vendors who sell honey, meat, baked goods, and handcrafted items. Around half of their customers come from the South Side neighborhood where the market is located, but they also have visitors from around Yellowstone County and beyond. Maia describes, “The market is relatively small, maybe 10-15 vendors, so it’s great that we have people from all over visiting our market.”
The Gardeners’ Market began accepting SNAP in 2014 and started offering Double SNAP Dollars the year after that. The market’s mission of increasing the affordability of fresh, local food made it a great fit for Double SNAP. Double SNAP Dollars helps food-insecure Montanans afford more fresh, local produce by doubling the purchasing power of their SNAP benefits. For every dollar spent on SNAP-eligible foods at participating farmers markets or farm shares, SNAP recipients receive an extra dollar to spend on fresh, local produce. At the Gardeners’ Market, SNAP customers receive up to $10 extra dollars per market.
Since offering the Double SNAP Dollars program, Maia says she has seen several benefits for their market: “We are the only market that accepts SNAP and offers Double SNAP in Yellowstone County, so we get more traffic because of that. We also get a lot of repeat customers who are really excited about the program, and they in turn tell other people about Double SNAP.” She remarks that the program has helped increase their customer base and made the market more accessible to a wider audience. She also says that vendors appreciate the program because it allows them to accept a wider variety of payment options and gives them a boost to their income. Maia notes that the vendors are a big part of what drives the program, as they are very accepting of programs that increase accessibility, and they appreciate that Double SNAP provides fresh, local produce to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Maia also notes that affordability is one of the major barriers to healthy food access in Yellowstone County, and Double SNAP really helps address this need. She says, “From customers, we hear that Double SNAP allows them to increase their purchasing power, and they love that they can get a larger variety of items. They don’t have to make a choice between produce and other products when using their SNAP benefits because of Double SNAP.” Maia also explains how the program allows SNAP customers the flexibility to try different kinds of fruits and veggies, and that this experimentation with healthy foods might not otherwise be possible on a tight food budget.
Maia says that the market helps community members reach the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables because of the increased affordability of high-quality, locally-grown produce available from vendors. Maia explains, “The Gardeners’ Market is supported by the Healthy By Design Coalition, which aims to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and that’s exactly what this market tries to do.”
Visit the Healthy By Design Coalition website to learn more about the Gardeners’ Market and their other initiatives: http://www.healthybydesignyellowstone.org/
To learn more about Double SNAP Dollars and to find a Double SNAP site near you, visit http://www.doubledollarsmt.com/