Farmers' Market Boom Not Reaching Many Food Stamp Users

Getting food stamps into farmers' markets can boost the poor, but it can also be a costly undertaking.

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A sign announces the acceptance of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers' market in Roseville, Calif.

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Farmers' markets have grown more than fourfold in less than two decades. According to new data from the USDA, there are 7,864 farmers' markets in the U.S., up from 1,755 in 1994. However, farmers' market access for the nation's poorest consumers remains limited.

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According to the USDA's farmers market database, only 1,645 farmers' markets, or just over 1 in 5, report accepting payment via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Though the figures represent markets that self-list with the USDA, and may not take into account the full extent of markets' prevalence in the nation, the numbers point to a lack of low-income access. Proponents argue that increasing farmers' market SNAP usage in so-called "food deserts" and among poorer populations is important to boosting access to healthy food. The problem is that boosting that access can prove costly to market operators.

"There's definitely a process, and a cost associated with it." says Nicky Uy, a senior associate at the Food Trust, a nonprofit organization that operates more than 30 farmers' markets in the Philadelphia area, all but two of which accept SNAP payment.

Uy outlines some of the hurdles that a food market must clear in order to institute SNAP redemption.

"Your organization needs to get an FNS number [designating it as an approved SNAP merchant], and they need to be able to purchase or rent a point-of-sale machine, and there has to be a way to reimburse the farmers. So there has to be some kind of system and back-end accounting."

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The USDA is working to combat the problem. Earlier this year, the organization announced it was spending $4 million on helping markets get point-of-sale equipment to process payments from the Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that SNAP recipients and beneficiaries of other programs, like WIC, use. The agency has high hopes for that program. In a call with reporters on Friday, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said that the USDA is expecting that close to two thirds of farmers' markets throughout the country will be EBT-enabled by the end of the year, as a result of that program and other USDA grants. Currently, over 2,500, or around one-third, of markets are EBT-enabled.

"That means farmers' markets are open for business for all people at all income levels," she said.

While SNAP administration systems differ from state to state, markets that decide to incorporate EBT programs often have common problems, like the added legwork that goes into accepting the transfers and making sure the money gets to the farmers. That legwork can go well beyond card-readers.

"You need really good accounting systems, you need someone who can count the tokens, people who can add, bookkeeping, plus somebody to staff an information booth at the market," says Colleen Donovan, farmers' market research coordinator at the Washington State University Extension.

Markets in that state are hoping that the USDA understands the limitations of technology in helping a market broaden its reach. Though the markets are happy for the assistance, there are other considerations. "I know that there are markets that wish that some of the funds could be used for the other costs that are related to setting up a program related to doing this," says Karen Kinney, interim executive director at the Washington State Farmers Market Association.

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Of course, vendors are happy to see potential for new customers (and new money). Donovan points out that adding EBT card readers to a farmers' market can often come alongside adding debit and credit card payment capabilities. However, even that is a mixed blessing, as debit and credit payments can come with processing fees.

"Who pays for those­—vendors, the shopper, the market? That's something that's been a real challenge to educate ourselves," says Donovan.