For some WA families, gardening starts with food stamps

Not all seed and starter retailers participate in this program, let alone realize they might, which can add to the awkwardness of trying to utilize the benefits of SNAP for gardening. Cacciata says grocery stores are more likely than nurseries or garden centers to accept SNAP because they already handle food purchases made with SNAP, but even grocery clerks might not know it’s a viable option.

“If you have cashiers who don’t understand that you can do it, then you face an immediate barrier, immediate judgment. And so all of your plans are completely thwarted before you even start,” says Slighte.

Aimée Damman, director of marketing and communications at Swansons Nursery, says she doesn’t know anyone who has used SNAP to buy seeds or plants. Although the nursery donates plants to the Ballard Food Bank and seeds to the Giving Garden Network, among other organizations, it does not accept SNAP. ” I do not think so [the option] is very well known,” she says. “We haven’t had any requests.” Should demand arise, Swanson’s would have to adjust its retail technology and may even have to offer more food-related items, even become eligible to accept SNAP benefits.

Urban Feed & Garden in Beacon Hill does not accept SNAP perks, but general manager Risa Wolfe says she thinks using seed and start-up perks seems like a great idea. Urban Feed & Garden donates seeds to community gardens and donated approximately $1,200 worth of seeds to Nurturing Roots last winter. She thinks her staff would be willing to accept the benefits of SNAP, but no one affiliated with SNAP has reached out to educate staff on the business side of the program. “If someone offered me SNAP benefits, I wouldn’t know what to do,” she says.

Other barriers to growing food

Once someone has seeds in hand, they need gardening maintenance supplies, time to garden, and space or land.

“Access to land is most important,” Matter says, emphasizing the importance of accessible community gardens. “Gardening time can be a barrier, but if people have a grow space in or near their home, it makes it more convenient.”

“You could get a packet of carrot seeds, but if you don’t have land for the carrot to grow in, it’s not really worth much,” adds DeLong.

Residents of King County have unequal access to these resources. Backyards are increasingly scarce, not all residents of multi-family dwellings are able to grow plants in containers or on rooftops, and while Seattle’s P-Patch program puts many acres of land available to the community for gardening, including food gardening, P-Patches can have waiting lists of years.

People also need educational resources to be successful. In addition to distributing fresh fruits and vegetables, a number of local organizations also offer gardening education, including Alliance of Tilth, The Beet Boxsolid ground, Cultivating the roots of the farm, Dark Star Farmers and the Black Farmers Collective’s Yes Close.

The King County Seed Library System and Sharing plant-based foods also share seeds and starts.

Seed Library Coordinator Bill Thorness says the popularity of gardening during the pandemic has reduced the Seed Library’s seed supply. “Because the seed companies have been very busy, we haven’t received so many donations. And part of our model includes holding seed exchanges where gardeners can bring seeds to share, but we haven’t done that in two years. We’re talking about having one outdoors this spring,” he says.

Some food banks also share seeds. Mara Bernard, manager of community farms and facilities at the White Center Food Bank, said the food bank distributed 4,000 seed packets and 2,000 plant starters last year.

In Slighte’s experience, growing any amount of food with the space and time people can find during a time of high anxiety is valuable for producing more than just fresh produce.

“When you use SNAP benefits for gardening, you experience a type of self-sufficiency that you don’t experience when you’re low-income,” says Slighte. “And it’s this non-tangible benefit that’s so incredibly helpful for your mental health.”

Update: This article was updated at 12:38 p.m. on March 3, 2021, with wording clarifying that many nurseries and plant stores may not currently be eligible to accept SNAP benefits. In its current form, the program requires retailers to qualify based on supplying a certain number of food products or earning a certain income from the sale of food products.

Terri S. Tomasini