SNAP Seeds and Seedlings Grow Home Gardens in the Shenandoah Valley

by Liz Kirchner, Virginia SARE Outreach Coordinator and Healthy Food Access Project, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Northern District

Home garden food production – even if that means a tomato in a bucket – is widely recognized to contribute to household nutrition and self-reliance. Garden produce strengthens ties between neighbors as those tomatoes are swapped, and maintains traditional foodways as gardening stories, seeds, and cooking skills are shared. However, not everybody realizes that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase seeds and seedlings, a caveat to the 1973 Farm Bill gauged to help people plant gardens. To raise awareness – and home gardens, too – Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Health Food Access program will host a series of seedling planting events with food pantry clients throughout the spring.

We will begin in May, after the frost-free date. The project goal is to send SNAP clients and other food pantry participants home with a planted seedling and a mapped list of nearby SNAP retailers who sell seedlings. Retailers identified using the ArcGIS, Google Maps, and the Buy Fresh Buy Local Guide include Walmart, some Food Lions, independent groceries, and the Staunton, Dayton, Waynesboro, and Harrisonburg Farmers’ Markets.

Our first event will be at the Verona Community Food Pantry in Verona, just south of Harrisonburg in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. About 100 people attend the pantry, lining up in the morning nearly an hour before the pantry opens at 9:00 AM. Our planting table will be set up outside loaded with 100 seedlings, maps, pots, soil, and plastic gloves. Look for the pictograph banner showing a tomato seedling going into a pot. Extension agents from Augusta and Rockingham Counties will be on hand, participating in the project.

Lessons learned so far include the discovery of Connecticut’s Charles A. Hart Seed Co. Hart Seeds supplies last years’ seeds – mostly vegetables, some heirloom – 100 packets for $14.99 – to Extension efforts and community gardening projects in the US and abroad.  Check for other seed companies that may have similar programs. I planted 300 seeds (6 flats) to raise tomatoes and peppers for this series of events at several food pantries. Start seeds early!

Throughout the summer, we’ll collect stories from clients of their planting successes and struggles through conversations with SNAP-Ed clients during their visits to the food pantry. Other planting events are being planned. We’ll blog here on the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Community, Local, and Regional Food Systems site and the Family Nutrition Program blog.