It started in 1998 with a bell pepper. Eliana (who asked us to use only her first name) was living with her kids in Pennsylvania and was newly separated from her partner. With a long-term disability, Eliana wasn’t able to drive, which meant her options for work were limited, and she had trouble finding a job. So she signed up for food stamps, as they were called at the time, what’s now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Looking to stretch every dollar, Eliana scoured grocery stores for the best food she could find for her family. Some fruits and vegetables, like bell peppers, were just too expensive. But as a lifelong gardener, Eliana knew that if she could get her hands on some seeds and a decent plot of land, she could grow what she needed to make up the difference in her grocery haul.
It’s not a well-known fact, but SNAP benefits can be used to purchase seeds or plant starts. It’s not always easy to find a store that both accepts SNAP payments and sells seeds or seedlings, but Eliana was persistent. She even educated the retailers on occasion, as they didn’t know the benefits could be used to purchase seeds. “Usually, the cashier is shocked, most managers also,” Eliana says. “Ringing them up, [I watch] the looks on their faces.”
The USDA encourages SNAP participants to use their benefits to purchase seeds. According to the USDA, for every $1 that a gardener spends on seeds and fertilizer, they’ll reap about $25 worth of food. For someone relying on government assistance, that kind of return on investment is unbeatable.
And it’s not just big retailers that can accept SNAP, although Eliana notes that it’s harder to find seeds at smaller stores these days. Farmers’ markets and individual sellers can also accept SNAP benefits, something that retailer Stacy Wistock says surprises a lot of people.
“At least half, if not more, of my customers didn’t know that their benefits were good for purchasing food-producing plants,” says Wistock, who along with her husband, owns and operates Tosche Supply Company, a farm in Lorimor, Iowa.
When she decided to become a SNAP retailer at her local farmers’ market, Wistock says the training was easy. After filling out an application, she was sent a hand-held terminal that accepts EBT cards and had a short phone training session to learn all of the rules. Then, she proudly displayed the sign saying “We accept EBT” at her market booth and watched her customers light up, especially at the beginning of spring. “We did a lot of business with SNAP customers those first few weeks of the market. Ours starts before much produce is ready to harvest, so I think people had benefits to spend and not a lot of choices in what to buy.”
Wistock says tomato seedlings are always popular, but she also sells a lot of spinach, lettuce and chard starts in the spring. This year, she’s even branching out from the farmers’ market, trying to help the folks in her community, who have to drive more than 15 miles to the nearest grocery store.
“I’m going to be doing a roadside stand along the highway that runs in front of our house on Friday evenings,” Wistock says. “We live a mile away from a really low income community, so there may be people there that would benefit from being able to use their SNAP benefits so close to home.”
Having access to seeds and starts, either from stores, markets or seed catalogs, has helped Eliana through the years, as she’s remained on SNAP benefits for most of that time. She’s a gardening evangelist, sharing her love of growing her own food with everyone she meets. When asked about what she likes to grow, Eliana says it’s about much more than food. She grows plants for aesthetic reasons or to calm her spirit. “Even if you can’t do much, you can grow a tomato and oregano to feed the belly, zinnia or sunflowers to feed your eyes and soul, hibiscus and blue butterfly tea to feed a healthy future,” she says. “And then share it all.”
With a small plot or even a few balcony boxes, Eliana encourages everyone to use their SNAP benefits to buy seeds—and to plan ahead. At the beginning of the year, when seed catalogs first come out, she has fun planning her upcoming harvest. But she’s also learned to order seeds in advance, so she’s set for later in the year when the benefits are stretched tighter.
The issue that often pops up, however, is space. Many people using SNAP benefits also live in subsidized housing or have to abide by rules set by public housing authorities that don’t allow gardens. It’s a problem Eliana has encountered more than once over the years. “Many housing authorities, social security buildings, social services or welfare offices, even nursing homes, are surrounded by so much land. What would happen if they were used for gardens instead of grass?”
Eliana has shared her gardening passion with others for decades, and she says that most people she meets who also use SNAP don’t know that they can buy seeds with their benefits, although she is quick to tell them. “Teaching you to provide even a tomato for yourself, that can mean a lot to someone.”