Food prices and insecurity on everyone’s lips in 2022, but many people aren’t aware that the USDA Food and Nutrition Service allows people to buy food-producing plants and seeds with EBT and SNAP benefits. The programs aren’t new and seem to rarely be disclosed to benefit recipients: The Food Stamp Act of 1977 specifies that EBT cardholders can puchase plants with their benefits, while the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 adds that SNAP participants can buy plants and seeds.
Where can you buy?
You can buy plants and seeds anywhere you can use your SNAP card. Supermarkets and farmer’s markerts are both common places you might find seeds, plants, or both. Though a moral compromise for many people, Wal Mart is a common, accessible retailer that marries both SNAP-accepting grocery store and SNAP-accepting garden center. Most garden centers and home improvement stores do not accept EBT or SNAP.
The USDA offers a search tool to help locate farmers markets and other food retailers and determine if they accept EBT/SNAP.
Amazon is also piloting a program to accept EBT and SNAP online, providing even more accessibility to people in food deserts or with disabilities that preclude regular food shopping.
While we acknowledge that Wal Mart and Amazon are both deeply problematic in a number of ways that run contrary to our values, we prioritize the health and wellbeing over our members over platitudes about the individual impact of poor people under the hyperobject of capitalism.
What can you buy?
You may purchase and grow any plant that produces edible foods including vegetable plants and even fruit trees! Food-producing roots, bulbs, and bushes also count.
Plants that produce edible herbs and spices can be purchased as well! That includes plants like anise, cumin, dill, basil, cilantro, and parsley.
Plants that are considered “ornamental” or inedible are not available for purchase with SNAP benefits.
Who can grow?
Anyone with access to sunlight, space, and a little bit of time for maintenance can grow food and herbs!
Unfortunately, access to land on which to grow is a privilege afforded to few people who would benefit from it the most. This is by design, of course. There is an immoral volume of ecologically dead lawn surrounding low income housing, nursing homes, and other common spaces in impoverished areas. Very often, low income people don’t have access to controlled commons, or any land or even space at all beyond a meager patio that may or may not have sufficient sunlight. While this program is a good thing, it isn’t always as easy as telling poor people to “grow your own food” when access to space, viable soil, and clean water have all been pulled out of reach for many people.
If you do have access to a patio, you would be shocked how much food you can produce there if it gets enough sunlight! The first step is knowing how much sunlight various plants actually need (don’t just assume!) and knowing that there are viable options for nearly all levels of light. Your favorite vegetables might not grow on a patio that only gets 3 or 4 hours of sunlight each day, but there are plenty that will!
You don’t have to spend a fortune to build a patio garden, either. Many plants can be grown right in the containers they come in, and almost any sturdy, well-drained container capable of holding soil (and made from non-toxic material) can be used as a raised bed!
A great solution for low income areas are community gardens, in which citizens can grow, harvest, work, and learn alongside master garderners. Typically affording as much or more space as one might expect in their backyards, and benefiting from communal tending, community gardens thrive by spreading out the responsibility of gardening and offering controlled, dedicated space and ready resources.
How do I get started?
Learning how to grow food at home may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. These tips can help you break an overwhelming task into smaller, manageable parts.
Do The Reading
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in starting a new garden is just sort of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. This is setting yourself up for failure. Most food plants don’t have incredibly complex needs, but each one does have its own preferences, problems, and tips for working with it. Learn them! Library books, the internet, and fellow gardeners are all excellent resources.
The second biggest mistake is seeing new gardeners try to take on too much. If you’re just starting, pick a small number of plants, 2 to 4, and work on getting those to grow and produce really consistently before moving on. Much of what you learn from working with those plants will translate to other plants you add to your personal catalog, meaning that over time you’ll have to learn less to take on more plants.
Tools Are Overrated
I use a Japanese hori hori, my fingers, and a decent pair of shears for gardening. That’s it. The hori hori is an indulgence I could probably live without, but it’s a versatile tool that makes many tasks easier at scale and when you’re growing a lot, tools that save time can be valuable.
Don’t get me wrong, tools are great and most of them are at least somewhat useful, but there is a lot of gadgetry and consumerism surrounding them, and at the end of the day very few tools are actually strictly necessary to garden successfully.
Location, Location, Location
Most fruits and vegetables need at least 6 hours of ful sun exposure per day, but many plants grow best in the shade. Do you know how many hours of sun your south-facing windowsill gets every day? Start observing and write down your findings!
Want to grow plants that simply don’t have enough space or light in the areas you have available? Look for a community garden!
Learn About Soil
There is more to learn about soil health than I can mention here, but it is a crucial part of any garden. While you won’t be able to buy it with your SNAP benefits, garden soil in bulk is not terribly expensive from most lawn and garden centers, and learning how it works will help you care for it and get continual yields from your initial investment.
Use your privilege!
If you have been fortunate enough to have space to learn to garden, you probably have a lot to offer people who are just getting started and have few resources, and may feel overwhelmed by how to learn best practices. There are a lot of things you can do to help new low income gardeners in your neighborhood!
- Start community gardening classes and clubs to teach and support new gardeners who might be worried about making mistakes, or think gardening will be too hard.
- Host classes about how to grow small food-bearing plants indoors and in windowsills or on patios.
- Consider donating space to SNAP participants who don’t have access to growing spaces if you or your organization has available land.
- Encourage families to garden together! Gardening is a bonding human activity and creates and fosters many strong social dynamics as well as teaching children valuable skills.
- Create recipe books using regional common vegetables or ones that you know SNAP participants are growing. For many people, simply not knowing what to do with the food they grow is one of the biggest hurdles! Keep time and effort in mind, as many working poor struggle with the time and labor surrounding meal preparation.