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Women Partners Power Innovation in Nutrition Assistance in the Midwest

Bonnie Dotson and her husband Josh sell fresh fruits and vegetables from their farm at Division Street Market in Chicago, IL.

Bonnie Dotson and her husband Josh sell fresh fruits and vegetables from their farm at Division Street Market in Chicago, IL.

Last summer I witnessed an amazing group of partners – the majority women, coincidentally – making a big difference in the lives of those who suffer from hunger. It all started with USDA’s effort to expand the availability of wireless technology at farmers markets not currently accepting SNAP benefits.

It’s sometimes difficult for markets to accept SNAP, because they need Electronic Benefit Transfer equipment and electricity to process benefits from the card. The funding can be used to help markets purchase the processing equipment, and to pay for wireless service so the equipment can be used without a power source. This is really exciting because it means more SNAP participants can access fresh, affordable and local produce and more American farmers can expand their client base.

In Illinois, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon and USDA Food and Nutrition Services Administrator Audrey Rowe joined forces to announce the markets receiving grants to expand their ability to accept SNAP payments. They also asked local food advocate Connie Spreen to participate. Lieutenant Governor Simon is a strong supporter of farmers markets, and Spreen heads up Experimental Station, a Chicago-based nonprofit that assists with training farmers markets all across the state how to install and use wireless EBT systems. So they were natural partners to help get the word out about the funding. Finally, Illinois farmers shared how accepting federal benefits has positively impacted their business.

In addition to equipping markets with EBT abilities, Experimental Station provides a dollar-matching program for SNAP clients at farmers markets. Spreen tells me this program has drastically increased produce purchases from Illinois farmers for the past four summers. “Having low-income participation at a farmers market is dependent on having capacity like wireless funding and the doubling program,” says Spreen. “We realized the challenge of not only be able to access healthy food, but being able to afford it.”

The Dotson family has owned their farm since 1966, and Josh and Bonnie Dotson have been bringing produce to farmers markets since 1979. With 31 acres in Beecher, IL, and everything from tomatoes to peppers, melons and squashes, the Dotsons produce enough fruits and vegetables to attend nine farmers markets a week. Starting at 3:30 most mornings, Bonnie tells me, she gathers the women of the family and loads up the truck. They usually reach the market by 5:30 a.m., just enough time to set up and be ready to open at 7:00. Bonnie reassures me the effort is worth it. She says they have a big customer following and that it only grew as the Dotsons began accepting SNAP electronically just a couple of years ago.

“Without grants and the help of Experimental Station, we wouldn’t have been able to accept SNAP,” says Dotson. “We’d have a lot of customers ask if we could take their benefits card, and we’d have to turn them down because our machines didn’t have that capability.” Dotson says she can definitely see a difference in her family’s sales since they’ve started accepting SNAP.

From the state and federal level of government to the farmers that power this country, all of these women play different but critical roles in the fight to end hunger and support agriculture and local economies at the same time. Partnerships like this one make me proud to work for the USDA, and proud of the critical role women play in nutrition assistance and agriculture.

In honor of National Ag Day, USDA agencies are sharing blogs highlighting the importance of innovation and research to food and agriculture. To see more, click here.

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