For some WA families, gardening starts with food benefits

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.

The King County Seed Library system and Plant Based Food Share also share seeds and starts.

Bill Thorness, coordinator of the seed library, says the popularity of gardening during the pandemic reduced the seed library’s seed supply. “Because the seed companies have been so busy, we haven’t had as many donations. And part of our model includes holding seed swaps where gardeners can bring seeds to share, but we haven’t done that for two years. We are talking about holding an outdoor one this spring,” he says.

Some food banks also share seeds. Mara Bernard, the community farms and facilities manager of the White Center Food Bank, says the food bank last year distributed 4,000 seed packets and 2,000 plant starts.

In Slighte’s experience, growing any amount of food with whatever space and time people can find during a time of great anxiety is valuable for producing more than just fresh produce.

“When you use SNAP benefits for gardening, you’re experiencing a type of self-sufficiency that you don’t get to experience when you’re low-income,” Slighte says. “And it’s that intangible benefit that is so incredibly helpful to your mental health.”

Update: This article was updated at 12:38 pm on March 3, 2021, with language clarifying that many nurseries and plant stores may not currently be eligible to accept SNAP benefits. The program as it stands requires retailers to qualify based on either providing a certain number of food products, or making a certain amount of revenue from selling food products.