Plants and seeds can be purchased with SNAP (formerly Food Stamps, renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP in 2008,) but most current SNAP participants are unaware. Nearly four decades ago, in 1973, Alabama Senator James Allen championed an amendment to allow the purchase of food-producing plants and seeds with Food Stamps. The Senate passed the amendment after less than ten minutes of floor debate. However, in the ensuing decades, there has not been a focused national effort to make SNAP participants raise awareness of this choice that is available to SNAP participants, nor to connect SNAP participants to resources that make gardening a viable with their benefits viable.

As of May 2012, nearly than 46.5 million Americans, or more than 1 in 7, 79% of whom are in metropolitan households, depend on SNAP to put food on the table, with an average monthly benefit of $133 per person. Most Americans do not consume sufficient fruits and vegetables, and for SNAP participants, the “triple-A” challenges of access, affordability and awareness are particularly pronounced. Diets with insufficient fruit and vegetable intake can lead to increased incidence of preventable illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity. Those illnesses further increase the burdens of citizens living in poverty. Such burdens fall not only on poor individuals and their families but also on society at large, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid costs.

Gardening offers a unique opportunity to simultaneously address access, affordability, and awareness. Gardening can help considerably in providing a healthful diet for SNAP participants in urban areas, while at the same time improving the surrounding neighborhood atmosphere and the natural environment. There are many experiential education lessons to be learned in a garden, including acquiring skills that can be leveraged into new career opportunities.

This article will discuss the history of food stamps and gardening as well as current efforts to raise awareness and develop resources to facilitate gardening with SNAP benefits, particularly in urban areas. Because gardeners tend to be the best advocates for gardening, this article will also highlight the role that urban community gardens and community gardeners can play in cultivating awareness and providing support.