For years, the farmers' market in Springfield's Forest Park neighborhood accepted paper food stamps from shoppers—an option that ensured that low-income families had easy access to fresh, local produce.
But that changed about a dozen years ago, said long-time market manager Belle Rita Novak. That's when the federal government revamped the program, switching from paper stamps to a debit card system called the Electronic Benefit Transfer system. The new EBT system—which was phased in during the late 1990s and early 2000s—has a number of pluses, including reducing the stigma that recipients might have felt when they took out their paper stamps to pay at the grocery store.
But the switch to the EBT system also had one significant, apparently unintended, drawback: it meant that shoppers receiving the benefit could no longer shop at most farmers' markets, which were typically cash-only operations without the means to process debit card purchases.
"We had to wait probably a dozen years for the technology to catch up," says Novak. Finally, in 2008, the Farmers' Market at Forest Park got a wireless machine that allows it to accept EBT cards issued to food stamp recipients as well as regular debit and credit cards.
"It's wonderful," says Novak of the new technology. The card machine makes the Tuesday afternoon market accessible to both food stamp users and any shopper who's forgotten to hit the cash machine on the way to the market; that, in turn, means more sales for the farmers who bring their goods to the market every week.
Those kinds of advantages have made the U.S. Department of Agriculture prioritize bringing the food stamp program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) to farmers' markets. While the federal and state governments offer grants and other incentives to get markets to accept the cards, the effort has experienced some growing pains. According to a USDA report, in fiscal 2009, only $4.3 million of the approximately $50 billion in SNAP benefits redeemed that year—.01 percent—was spent at farmers' markets. But slowly, the effort is taking off, with Valley farmers' markets among those embracing it.
Just under 45 million Americans receive SNAP benefits—the largest number since the food stamp program was established in 1939—according to USDA data released in June. That includes 810,900 Massachusetts residents. About half of recipients are children. The average benefit is $133 per month.
In recent years, government campaigns have focused on improving recipients' access to healthier, higher-quality food. In 2009, the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources used funding from the Department of Transitional Assistance to help make farmers' markets more SNAP-friendly. Market managers could apply to DAR for grants to buy or rent card processing machines, promote the program and provide incentives that allow SNAP recipients to buy extra produce.
According to a DAR report released in February, the program helped dramatically increase the number of markets around the state that accept SNAP cards, from nine in 2007 to 30 in 2009 to 58 in 2010. More markets have joined up this season; Phil Korman, executive director of the Valley's Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, counts 23 markets that now take SNAP cards in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.
Farmers' markets, Korman said, are one of the few remaining community spaces where commerce is carried on, and it's important that everyone have access to those spaces, and to the fresh food available there.
The EBT cards also make it easier for SNAP recipients to do their shopping without worrying about the judgmental eyes of fellow shoppers. Because the farmers who sell at the markets only take cash, both SNAP recipients and users of regular debit cards check in at the card machine, where they receive the money they withdraw in the form of wooden coins, which they then redeem with individual farmers.
Because SNAP recipients can only use their coins for certain items (they can buy food and food-producing plants, but not ornamental plants, for instance), their coins are a different color than those given to bank card users. Still, Korman said, the coins are more discreet than the old paper stamps, and it's not likely that shoppers are paying attention to the color of the coins in another person's hand. To other shoppers, he said, "you're just a person who's not using cash—which is 90 percent of people."
It's not just SNAP recipients who benefit from the farmers' market programs. Massachusetts spends about $1 billion a year on the SNAP program, Korman said, adding, "Those are also investment dollars ... that can also be used to support local farms and agriculture"—as opposed to the large-scale industrial farms, which rely on processing food and shipping it thousands of miles to reach customers, that typically benefit from government aid.
Many markets also offer incentive programs that give SNAP users more purchasing power. At the Forest Park market, for instance, recipients get an additional $2 in coins for every $5 they take from their account. The Tuesday Market held in downtown Northampton offers a dollar-for-dollar match, as does CISA's one-day annual Winter Fare.
Those incentive programs have been so popular that markets are scrambling to keep up with the demand, including by seeking help from other funding sources. The Forest Park market has received grants for the program from the Community Foundation of Western Mass. and the Xeric Foundation, as well as DAR, Novak said.
The non-profit Grow Food Northampton has raised more than $12,000 to support the incentive program at the Tuesday Market. "It directly supports our mission, which is to promote food security by advancing agriculture," Lilly Lombard, GFN's executive director, said. "It's about giving people access to healthy, nourishing food and supporting local, sustainable farmers."
For all the benefits, there are also challenges faced by markets that want to start taking SNAP benefits. Farmers' market managers, Korman said, take the jobs as "labors of love," and don't earn nearly what they should for their work load. Adding the card processing machines increases that work load. "That's another task that needs to be done that no one's necessarily paying the market to do," he said.
According to the February DAR report, an EBT machine cost participating markets, on average, $701, as well as $35 in monthly expenses. "Anecdotally, market managers reported that the financial burden was the main factor inhibiting them from accepting SNAP at their market," the report found. A survey of participating markets also uncovered other problems with the machines, including poor wireless connections—not surprising, given that most markets are held in outdoor spaces such as parking lots. DAR hopes to offset some of those problems with grants and technical assistance to markets that take the cards.
At the Forest Park market, Novak said, the wireless connection can be a problem, especially on windy days. Still, she describes the program as a great addition, one that makes the market both livelier and financially healthier. Last year, Novak said, the market did about $2,500 in EBT sales. By late July of this year, the market was already closing in on that figure.
Statewide, according to the DAR, markets that accept SNAP cards reported, on average, an additional $2,202 in sales from SNAP recipients. "Despite the challenges associated with providing SNAP/EBT access, most markets would like to continue accepting these benefits.... Furthermore, 23 markets not yet accepting SNAP benefits have expressed an interest in becoming USDA certified in order to do so," the report found. "This further emphasizes the demand for SNAP at farmers' markets in Massachusetts and the momentum around expanding the program."