For some families, gardening starts with SNAP benefits

Some groups that sell seeds and food-bearing plants say the option is being used. Through her work at Tilth, Cacciata says she has had a number of people purchase edible plant starts — broccoli, beets, leafy greens and beyond — with SNAP benefits at events like Tilth’s annual Edible Plant Sale and the seasonal farm stand.

Locals like Slighte are so passionate about this option that they make instructional videos to share online as a way to expand awareness of it. Using online platforms like TikTok, Slighte — under the handle @NeurodivergentGranny — shows people how to double the value of their SNAP benefits at farmers markets, where she purchased tomato plants last year, from which she saved seeds for future harvest. Even during the winter, the foods she harvested and dehydrated from her first year of having a “major” patio garden provide about 10% of her food, she says. In the early fall, she was able to grow about 30% of her own food.

DeLong says the process of using SNAP at farmers markets can be awkward, involving tokens and Monopoly-style money. “I want to use the state’s money at the farmers’ markets to support local farmers. But it’s really just like a strange belittling interaction,” they said.

Not every seed and start retailer participates in this program, let alone realizes they might, which can add to the awkwardness of trying to use SNAP benefits for gardening. Cacciata says grocery stores are more likely than nurseries or garden centers to accept SNAP, since they already handle food purchases made with SNAP, but even grocery clerks might not know it’s a viable option.

“If you’ve got cashiers that don’t understand that you can do that, then you’re met with an immediate barrier, immediate judgment. And so all your plans are completely thwarted before you even start,” Slighte says.

Aimée Damman, director of marketing and communications at Swansons Nursery, says she doesn’t know of anyone who has used SNAP to purchase seeds or plants. While the nursery donates plants to the Ballard Food Bank and seeds to the Giving Garden Network, among other organizations, it does not accept SNAP. “I don’t think [the option] is very widely known,” she says. “We haven’t had any demand.” If demand arises, Swanson’s would need to adjust its sales technology, and may actually have to offer more food-related items to even become eligible to accept SNAP benefits.

Urban Feed & Garden in Beacon Hill doesn’t accept SNAP benefits, but General Manager Risa Wolfe says she thinks using the benefits on seeds and starts sounds like a great idea. Urban Feed & Garden donates seeds to community gardens, and donated about $1,200 worth of seeds to Nurturing Roots last winter. She thinks her staff would be willing to accept SNAP benefits, but no one affiliated with SNAP has reached out to educate the staff on the business side of the program. “If somebody came to me with SNAP benefits, I wouldn’t know what to do,” she says.

Other hurdles to growing food

Once someone has seeds in hand, they need gardening maintenance supplies, time to garden and container space or land.

“Land access is the big one,” Matter says, stressing the importance of accessible community gardens. “Time to garden can be an impediment, but if folks have growing space at their home or nearby, this makes it more practical.”

“You could get a pack of carrot seeds, but if you don’t have land for the carrot to grow into it, then it’s not really worth much,” adds DeLong.

People in King County have unequal access to these resources. Backyards are increasingly scarce, not all multifamily housing residents are able to grow plants in containers or on roofs, and while Seattle’s P-Patch program makes many acres of land available to the community for gardening, including food gardening, the P-Patches can have yearslong waitlists.

People also need educational resources to be successful. In addition to distributing fresh fruits and vegetables, a number of local organizations also provide gardening education, including Tilth Alliance, The Beet Box, Solid Ground, Nurturing Roots Farm, Black Star Farmers and the Black Farmers Collective’s Yes Farm.