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wild ramp

Fresh produce sits in crates at The Wild Ramp farmers market in Huntington in July.

West Virginia officials announced on Friday that benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can now be stretched again at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets and local food retailers statewide thanks to a $100,000 allocation of federal CARES Act funding to the “SNAP Stretch” program.

“I am absolutely tickled beyond belief to be able to provide the funding that’s needed to keep this crucial program going strong through the end of the year,” Gov. Jim Justice said in making the announcement.

The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, has been working to get more funding this year after the program ran out of money in August due to increased demand.

“This year was SNAP Stretch’s most successful, having utilized the entirety of funds available by the middle of the market season,” said Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. “The program put $158,000 into the local food economy and helped more than 4,600 families gain access to locally produced food.”

SNAP Stretch began in 2018. It allows individuals to stretch their number of SNAP tokens through a 1-to-1 conversion. Whenever someone spends one SNAP dollar at a farmers market, with SNAP Stretch, they will receive another dollar to buy more fruits and vegetables.

Additionally, shoppers who are accompanied by a child receive $2 instead of $1. While this extra money could exclusively be used on fruits and vegetables, it effectively doubled the spending power of customers at 42 farmers markets throughout the state.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was announced that SNAP Stretch’s benefits would be applied to eggs, meat and dairy through December 2020. This, combined with the distribution of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) cards to more families and the surge of attention to and participation in farmers markets brought on by the pandemic, led to the grant fund budget of $158,000 being depleted just halfway through the year.

Markets across the state were affected by this announcement, including Huntington’s Wild Ramp, a year-round nonprofit farmers market.

“It was a great thing for everyone involved,” Shelly Keeney, market director of the Wild Ramp, previously told The Herald-Dispatch about the SNAP Stretch program. “It brought extra attention to the market, got food to people who really needed it, and put money in the pockets of our producers and local farmers.”

Moss added the pause of the program in August affected both families and farmers who count on it.

“The pandemic has caused job and wage losses in many families, leaving them in need of extra support to help meet their basic needs,” Moss said. “SNAP Stretch helps address some of the effects of food insecurity that the pandemic has created or increased.”

Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, one of the founders of the West Virginia House Hunger Caucus, a bipartisan group from the West Virginia House of Delegates that addresses food insecurity issues throughout the state through legislation and policy, said this allocation of funds is something CARES Act funding was designed to do.

“Helping people who are struggling with hunger and food insecurities due to the COVID-19 pandemic is exactly what we should be doing,” he said. “The prevalence of hunger in West Virginia is largely underestimated. One out of every six West Virginians will face food insecurity at least once this year — that’s nearly 350,000 people, and there has been a great increase in that number due to the pandemic.”

Lovejoy said the SNAP Stretch program is a triple win for West Virginia.

“It gets access to food for those struggling with hunger, it helps West Virginia farmers and it keeps money circulating locally,” he said.

West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt says the way to overcome a pandemic is with good nutrition.

“Now more than ever are our citizens relying on local producers for their food,” he said. “Supporting the expansion of the SNAP Stretch program not only helps feed our most vulnerable, but puts money straight back into our local economies.”

Moss added that if all of the $100,000 in additional funding is used by the end of the year, there would be discussions about the program’s 2021 budget.

“We expect this program to continue to grow, and if the pandemic continues into 2021, we expect to see a large need next year as well,” she said.

To learn more about SNAP Stretch, visit snapstretch.com.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter

@FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com