A pandemic-era food delivery program started in 2020 by the organizers of the Bellevue Farmers Market has evolved into a match program that allows people on food assistance programs like SNAP to double their benefits. And now Food Assistance Match is expanding to two additional markets this summer in Cranberry and Bethel Park, with plans to add more over the next several years.
Albert and Mallory Ciuksza and Bryan Davidson were part of a group of neighbors in Bellevue who worked with the Bellevue Farmers Market during the height of the Covid shutdown to get food to people who needed it.
“We knew there were people in our community who were going to be impacted disproportionately by the shutdown,” Albert Ciuksza says.
They scraped together some money with a few friends and went to Restaurant Depot.
“We filled up a Mazda CX-5 with as much food as we could get and we were planning on cooking food in our homes and just handing it out.”
They didn’t do any means-testing or require people to demonstrate financial need; if someone asked for a meal via the SMS texting system the team set up, they got one. That also meant they later rejected several potential partners for the program who wanted to gather data on the recipients, Ciuksza says, because it felt exploitative, and they didn’t want to create hoops for people to jump through.
The response was immediate, but they quickly realized that having a long line of people congregating anywhere during a pandemic pre-vaccine was not going to work.
They shifted gears to a delivery service instead, called the Feeding Neighbors Program, using contributions from individuals and foundations and 250 volunteers to deliver more than 30,000 meals to nearly 300 families.
“I was delivering meals to people’s homes that were in my neighborhood, who were on my street, who I saw at the farmers’ market and at the grocery store,” Davidson says. “Food insecurity isn’t just something that affects people who are homeless or struggling, it’s something that kind of ebbs and flows, especially for people who are working shift work; they may have good money one month and not another.”
With support from The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation, they were able to redirect the funds they had raised and create a market that provided a match for all food assistance benefits — Senior Bucks, WIC and SNAP. That was the start of what has grown into the Food Assistance Match program, which they have now spun out into a nonprofit.
In 2021, the Bellevue community supported the program via contributions from local residents and businesses and a successful crowdfunding campaign. Last year, the Bellevue Farmers Market won a federal Community Development Block Grant for the program, which allowed them to increase from a 1-to-1 match to a 2-to-1 match for benefits, essentially tripling the buying power of recipients.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that does not have a statewide double-match program for SNAP benefits, Albert Ciuksza says. The Bellevue Farmers Market has offered a match for SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — since 2018. They partnered with anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest and leveraged the Fresh Access program, which gives SNAP recipients $2 extra for every $5 they spend on fruits and vegetables at 15 farmers’ markets across Allegheny County.
For Lindsey Sibert, events coordinator at the Bethel Park Farmers’ Market, the program was a bit of a happy accident. She took over Bethel Park’s popular market last season.
“And one of the questions over and over that I got, was would we be accepting SNAP benefits and how could we do that,” she says. A volunteer with the Bellevue Farmers Market reached out to connect, and Sibert met with Mallory Ciuksza.
“The second she started talking about it, I was totally engaged,” Sibert says. “It’s above and beyond what I was hoping to add. I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Sibert expects the Bethel Park Farmers’ Market to have the program up and running as soon as staff are trained.
Here’s how it works: A patron shops at eligible vendors (as determined by their assistance program), and gets a receipt for the items they want. The sales transaction is processed at a central location. Market volunteers then gather the items from the vendors and bring them to the patron. Vendors are reimbursed for the total amount purchased.
That process was something the Bellevue team planned carefully; Albert Ciuksza says it was important to them that the transactions for the program were handled with sensitivity.
Ciuksza calls himself a “WIC kid,” who benefited as a child from the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in low-income families. He says shopping with WIC vouchers with his mother was a formative experience for him, where often the dignity of the people in need was never considered. He said as the Food Assistance Match program has evolved, he wanted to make sure that people who participated would be treated with dignity.
“But it was not just me — our team really bought into this idea that if you build the system around dignity, you get a different and better solution.”
The Bellevue Farmers Market is located at Bayne Park, 34 N. Balph Ave., Bellevue,
and is open Wednesdays in June through October, from 3 to 7 p.m.
The Bethel Park Farmers’ Market is located at 30 Corrigan Drive, Bethel Park,
and is open Tuesdays in May through September from 3 to 7 p.m.
The Cranberry Township Farmers Market is located at 2525 Rochester Road, Cranberry Township, and is open Fridays in June through September, from 3 to 7 p.m.