Gardeners With Benefits

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Everything Daniel Bowman Simon says—and he says a lot—comes out with just a slight hint of uncertainty, as though he’s never quite sure that, out of the multitude of thoughts racing around his brain, he’s picked exactly the right one to give voice to.

So in conversation with a single-minded and determined person—as he was at a gardening conference in March—he can seem like a bit of a pushover. An attendee, Viola, had stopped at the table he had set up to publicize SNAP Gardens, the organization he founded to help food stamp recipients grow their own food. And though she was listening to his pitch, what she really wanted was the SNAP Gardens T-shirt he’d hung behind the table. “But it’s my decoration,” he said hesitantly. “And somebody already stole my plant.”

Nonetheless, he took the shirt down and held it against Viola’s ample body, where it fit perfectly. “I’ve got to have that T-shirt,” she said. “How much do you want for it?” Simon looked as though he felt he had no choice but to hand it over.

But vague as he often seems, Simon knows what he wants—and generally gets it. “Come back at the end of the conference, and I’ll give it to you,” he offered, thereby keeping his decoration without missing out on all the free advertising Viola was so clearly eager to provide. I left before the conference ended, but Simon e-mailed me later to tell me she had indeed come back to get the shirt. “It seems I’ve recruited Viola,” he said in his e-mail. “Man, she really wanted that T-shirt.”

I first met Simon, now 32, in 2008, when he was driving an upside-down school bus, topped with an organic garden, around the country to build support for his previous campaign: an organic garden at the White House. Now, having helped get the Obamas growing vegetables, he’s set his sights on a considerably tougher crowd: the country’s 46 million food stamp recipients.

It all started at one stop on his White House garden campaign, when a woman challenged the whole idea. “The White House garden is a nice symbol,” she said, “but if you really want to help people who can’t afford good, healthy food, why don’t you promote the fact that food stamps can be used for seeds and plants?”

Simon thought she must be wrong. The experts he talked to didn’t believe you could use your food stamps for anything but, well, food. Neither did the officials he talked to at the USDA, the agency in charge of administering food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). “It’s a great idea,” they all said, of making veggie seeds and seedlings eligible for SNAP spending. “You should campaign for it.”

But Simon, who is nothing if not dogged, delved into the history of food stamp legislation, and discovered that the woman he’d met was right. Not only was there a provision in there for buying seeds and plants, but it had been in there since 1973. “I thought, ‘Man, this has been there since before I was born, and I can’t find anyone who knows about it except this woman.’ ”

The $72 billion food stamp program helps feed roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population; half the recipients are children. Benefits vary by state, but average about $135 per person per month. The money, which originally came as actual stamps but now comes in an ATM-style card, may only be spent on food, and only at the food retailers authorized to accept it—and even then there are tricky restrictions. Raw chicken and frozen chicken potpie are eligible, for example, while hot rotisserie chicken is not. And most New Yorkers know that, despite the mayor’s wishes otherwise, the federal benefit may be redeemed for soda.

By using food stamp benefits to buy seeds and plants, SNAP recipients (and thus government) can stretch their dollars considerably. For less than the price of a Snickers bar (also eligible for food stamps), a single pack of seeds or a spindly seedling, if tended right, can yield fresh vegetables for weeks and weeks, of a quality that beats anything at the bodega.

Simon’s also more aware than most of the obstacles poor people, especially in cities, face when it comes to growing food: A sunny patch of soil can be impossible to find. And people struggling to make it through the week on a miniscule budget may not have time for digging, planting, watering and weeding. But even a single pot on a windowsill can get something green on your plate for next to nothing.

So Simon set out to spread the word: joining food and gardening list serves, contacting not-for-profits, farmers markets, community groups, religious groups in New York and across the country—any place he could think of where this idea might catch fire. “This stuff,” Simon says, in what’s likely a massive understatement, “does take a lot of time on the computer and on the telephone.”

Even world-renowned nutritionist and public health expert Marion Nestle—who is also one of Simon’s professors at NYU, where he is pursuing a master’s in urban planning (he’s also got an MBA and a certificate in conservation biology)—uses Simon as a source. “If I wanted to know anything about food stamps, he is the first person I would ask,” she says. And she’s not the only one: “He’s been remarkably effective at making connections at a very high level. Everybody knows who he is.” She admires his doggedness, though she uses different words for it. People who like what he’s doing, she says, would call him persistent; those who don’t would call him relentless.

Despite a two-year stint as senior nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services, Nestle’s one of the many, many experts who didn’t know edible seeds and plants could be purchased with food stamps till Simon told her. Joan Gussow, the famed food-system critic, Columbia professor and octogenarian gardening guru, is another.

Gussow had yet one more word for Simon’s persistence the first time she met him. He’d been chasing her around the Internet for quite a while, posting old articles of hers and joining list serves where he’d find her. Finally he walked up to her after a presentation at the 92nd Street Y and, without introducing himself, just started talking. When she could get a word in edgewise, she asked his name. “So that’s who you are,” she recalls saying. “Why are you stalking me?”

Since then Simon has gone up to Rockland County to visit Gussow and her garden on the Hudson, and they do a lot of chatting online; when Simon was in the front row at a recent White House event, he sent Gussow photos, along with irreverent comments. “I don’t do that kind of chatting with most people,” she says.

Gussow says she admires the way he has taken up this issue, pushing everyone from farmers markets to the USDA to publicize SNAP’s gardening potential. (When Simon asked the USDA to insert the 1973 inclusion of plants and seeds into its history of the food stamp legislation, an official turned him down. As Simon tells the story, the official told him it wasn’t that big a deal. “I e-mailed back and said ‘It’s a big deal to me, and if it’s all the same to you, I would be really happy to see it there.’” The change went in.)

“He’s really committed and he throws himself in completely,” Gussow marvels. She also worries about him a bit. “I just hope he has rich parents or something,” she says only half-jokingly, “so he doesn’t find himself homeless.”

Gussow’s worry is not unreasonable. His SNAP Gardens organization has gotten some grants—enough to pay Simon a small stipend—and he is a semi-finalist for a fellowship from Echoing Green, an Ashoka-like social entrepreneur program. But he lives on a shoestring, sharing a Lower East Side apartment, growing his own vegetables in a nearby community garden and devoting a lot more time to SNAP Gardens than he does to his master’s program (a theoretically two-year degree that he expects will take him five).

Meanwhile word is getting out. He’s sent “Food Stamps Grow Gardens!” posters—designed for him by an artist he met at a City Council hearing—to markets and organizations in 48 states. The SNAP Gardens Web site lists around 180 organizations it works with, the bulk of them farmers markets—which, unlike grocery stores, often sell seedlings, and unlike garden stores, can be authorized to accept food stamps. Simon says that he could easily get thousands more requests for posters—if he had the money or volunteer power to handle them. But as it is, he’s stopped mailing posters and is now sending PDF files instead.

His latest brainstorm is to set up a revolving loan fund to help communities create their own seed- and seedling-selling operations, which would not only make veggie plants more accessible in low-income neighborhoods, but would also bring in cash that could be used to spread awareness and support community gardens.

“If we can get some early successes that can be documented,” he muses, “I think people are going to be knocking on my door to try to put money into this fund, to get this going exponentially.” But how, he worries, can he document it? “Everyone wants metrics,” he says, “but so much of this is unmeasurable. How do you measure telling somebody what his rights are under the law?”

Currently, SNAP Gardens consists of a few volunteers, its very part-time (but paid) artist, a URL, a bunch of posters, T-shirts and flyers and a whole lot of e-mail. And, of course, Simon, whose brain teems with more ideas—about everything from how to make it easier for poor people to garden to the best way to set up an information clearinghouse—than any one person, however dogged, could possibly bring to fruition. As I listened, I kept feeling the way I do when I’m faced with somebody’s chaotic bookcases or overstuffed filing cabinets: I desperately wanted to get in there and organize it all. What, I kept asking him, are you going to do?

The subsequent hour-long conversation touched on: why gardeners, like investors, need to diversify their produce portfolios; the enthusiasm of preschoolers; missing his chance to have his picture in the Wall Street Journal; how to get grocery stores and bodegas to sell seeds and plants; making a Google map of SNAP gardens; how to get people to respond to his survey; what is a SNAP garden anyway?; the things he could do if he had a staff; crowd-sourcing innovation; the superior excitingness of plants over seeds; getting people from the Chelsea housing projects gardening on the High Line; developing press contacts….

And, ultimately, changing the world.

“The food stamp program is the world’s signature feeding-slash-hunger project,” Simon says finally. “So if other governments could see that the United States can make gardening a real way to address hunger in a way that is cost-effective and brings joy and skills into peoples’ lives, then maybe I’ll end up working on it for the U.N.”

On the other hand, he adds, “maybe I’ll just want to spend more time on a farm.”

Photo credit: Rebecca McAlpin

Andrew F. Smith

Andrew F. Smith (Editor in Chief) teaches nine courses on culinary topics at the New School in New York. He serves as the series editor for the "Edible Series" at Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom, and is the author or editor of twenty-four books, including his most recent, American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (University of California Press, 2012), The Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013), and New York City: A Food Biography (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013).

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