The largest federal nutrition assistance program allows participants to purchase seeds and seedlings, which should, in theory, help low-income gardeners grow their own food.
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.
[RELATED: USDA to Bump SNAP Benefits for 41 Million Americans]
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.”
[RELATED: The Modern Farmer Guide to Buying Seeds]
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.”
I live in a HUD approved apartment and could grow some vegetables on my patio in containers, however the apartment complex will not allow this. I think the rules should be changed. I feel that gardening and growing food is a human right.
get seeds anyway. you can always grow them in 5 gallon buckets all year.What would have made this article better is if you had a list of retailers that actually took snap for seeds.
I have a farm in Phoenix, Arizona growing Native food plants, and I sell SNAP-eligible seeds, roots, and starts, as well as their edible food crops, at the Old Town Scottsdale and High Street Farmers Markets on the weekend. The plants are Natives that do not require costly inputs like fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation. Currently, I have chiltepines, graythorn, and barrel cactus. Throughout the market season, my offerings include pitahaya, prickly pear, cholla, elderberry, wolfberry, sunflower, saiya, mashua, ulluco, oca, 2 kinds of tepary bean, lovegrass, panicgrass, saltgrass, chufa, and hawthorn. I am finding sales brisk this year, unlike 2020… Read more »
Yeah, this should be widely publicized. Some cities, like Detroit, have a lot of vacant land that could be used for growing food.
I tried doing this but I was told by the store that the seeds were not food and that I would have to pay cash. This disappointed me and also upset me. I have not been back to that store. Plus I do not know who to complain to
I emailed USDA to ask what people can do if a retailer refuses to allow SNAP benefits for purchase of seeds (or any other eligible product) or has other issues, as well as if they have a list of retailers that take SNAP for seeds. They say all SNAP retailers have to allow purchase of eligible products with SNAP benefits. Link to SNAP Retailer Locator is in last paragraph. I had to email several times to get the answers, so I just copied/pasted bits here, hopefully in logical order. The eligible foods list is interesting. “Thank you for your feedback.… Read more »
Visit your local Farmers Market for produce and free seeds. Many Master Gardeners participate in Farmer’s Market days offering free seeds….
Don’t forget microgreens and sprouts that are from seeds but can be cut back and regrown. If done properly it an infinite amount of nutritionally dense superfood. You don’t need land just a sunny window. Save seeds from the produce you do buy. Again it’s infinite. Also you can regrow onions, garlic, lettuce from that little piece you usually throw away. Many kitchen scraps that don’t regrow feasible produce can become a little houseplant. Living off the land like this is so rewarding and you feel like your food benefits are not a handout
When I was searching for an apartment I made the ability to garden a priority. I got lucky and found one where the management not only said I could have patio plants but offered an apartment on the first floor with a small yard to garden as I please! I’ve been very respectful of the property and have made sure to do just enough that I can return it back to normal should I need to, but I grow some peppers, beans, and enough tomatoes to share with my neighbors every year, plus some ornamentals to brighten up the place.… Read more »