Buying a bagful of multi-colored vegetables at designer grocery stores can easily eat up a significant amount of one's shopping budget. Cost-conscious buyers might be able to make the splurge, but it is not as easy for the millions of people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps.
To help ease the transition to healthier eating for millions of SNAP beneficiaries who live in food deserts, the United States Department of Agriculture announced last month that it is awarding $4 million in grants to state agencies to allow farmers' markets throughout the country to purchase pricey point-of-sale machines. The wireless machines can process SNAP benefits, but can cost as much as $500.
The measure will help reconnect low-income residents with the often more affordable farmers' markets, which have unfairly earned a reputation as being trendy and inaccessible, said Michael Segal, executive director of the Ward 8 Farmers Market in Washington, D.C.
"When there were food stamps and coupons, there was a lot of business at farmers' markets with food stamps. Individual farmers didn't have to make any investments with the old-fashioned system," he said. "When they made the shift to the debit card system, that pattern dropped almost down to nothing the next year. There was no way you could use a debit card outdoors in the middle of a parking lot."
Technically, the EBT cards are not debit cards. And electronic terminals set up to process debit cards, Visa and MasterCards are not wired to process EBT cards. And that's a problem for farmers selling their fresh fruit and vegetables and EBT cardholders who want to buy fresh produce.
"It was really frustrating for us," Segal explained. "There was a moment in history, about 15 or 20 years ago, when you have two things simultaneously going on: there were more markets and more fresh fruit available, and the doors were slamming shut on people who had these cards that we couldn't process," he said. "Farmers' markets had gotten this reputation as these tremendously elite and expensive places, and it's not fair."
Farmers markets, which are largely staffed by volunteers, also run into challenges accessing the market share of people who use SNAP benefits. Problems staffing EBT terminals, letting people with SNAP benefits know that they do accept them, and lack of uniformity in executing the program are some of the issues detailed in "Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets."
Two of the report's co-authors, Stacy Miller of the Farmers Market Coalition and Andy Fisher of the Community Security Coalition, introduced the report in 2010.
Of the 7,100 farmers markets in the United States, the Ward 8 Farmers' Market is one of more than 1,500 markets that are already able to accept and process EBT cards. With a customer base that's at least 80 percent Black, the market opened for the season on June 2. With many of its food producers residents of Ward 8, it saw a 5 percent increase in purchases made with EBT cards last year, which is in addition to other public assistance options such as WIC and senior vouchers.
"That means a lot for the farmers and turns into 10 percent for them because of a grant from Wholesome Wave Foundation, which doubles the amount purchased, so that's exciting," Segal said.
The grant is only available to farmers markets that don't already have an EBT machine.
Some farmers' markets are in rural areas and don't have access to electricity or phone lines. But advances in wireless technology will open up a new world for them – up to a point.
"One of the things that's really frustrating is that the technology is very, very close to the point where the card use could get much less expensive if Square and other [smartphone] devices started processing EBT cards," said Segal. "There's a lot of security issues involved. Personally, I think it's going to happen. The technology is there."
Bruce Alexander, director of communications for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said, "The program is entirely opt in, it's not mandatory. The funding covers the purchase of the equipment for each farmers market, not for each farmer."
More than 46 million people in the country receive SNAP benefits. Caseload growth year-to-year largely mirror unemployment and underemployment trends, according to the Food Research & Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization.
"Increases in SNAP caseloads between February 2011 and February 2012 occurred in 46 states and the District of Columbia," reported the nonprofit. "The four states that registered double digit over-the-year percentage caseload increases were: Delaware (11.7 percent), Iowa (10.8 percent), Colorado (10.1 percent) and Hawaii (10.8 percent.)"