‘Real Food, Real Choice’ Describes Barriers to Connecting Farmers with SNAP Shoppers, Offers Recommendations

Posted by Jen O'Brien on July 14, 2010
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NEW YORK CITY – (July 15, 2010) – Economic, social, and technological barriers are preventing many SNAP participants from buying fresh and healthy food at  farmers markets in their neighborhoods, according to a sweeping, independent analysis of farmers markets nationally. Simultaneously, small-scale family farmers are missing millions of dollars in potential income from federal nutrition programs.

In “Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets,” the Community Food Security Coalition and Farmers Market Coalition sought to determine and measure the challenges farmers markets face in serving the growing number of SNAP participants nationwide, and offer a road-map for improvement.

On July 15th, the Real Food, Real Choice Report was publicly introduced at a press conference in New York City’s Brooklyn Borough Hall Greenmarket by two of the report’s co-authors, Stacy Miller of the Farmers Market Coalition and Andy Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition.

While popularity and availability of farmers markets has burgeoned nationwide, the report found a significant and widening challenge for markets seeking to serve federal nutrition program participants, many of whom already have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These challenges also make it difficult for local farmers to participate in and benefit from the nearly $50 billion distributed through federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Adapting to the technological, regulatory, training, and staffing challenges have made this digital divide particularly hard to cross for farmers market organizations.

Though the percentage is growing, Less than 20 percent of farmers markets have EBT terminals, though this number is growing thanks to some level of streamlining by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and the publication of recent tools such as the Farmers Market SNAP How-To Handbook. SNAP transactions at farmers markets accounted for a mere .008% of total SNAP transactions nationwide in 2009. This rate of expenditure is 25 times less than all American consumers spent at farmers markets last year.

Among the reasons, according to the report:

  • EBT terminals can be expensive to purchase and operate. Also, successful EBT programs require a significant investment of labor. Many farmers markets are volunteer-run or do not have the funds or staffing to implement these programs.
  • There does not currently exist any technical assistance program to help markets share information about successful models, to speed up the pace of innovation across the country. Each market is essentially forced to “reinvent the wheel.”
  • Many SNAP shoppers are not even aware of the existence of farmers markets, or that a growing number of them accept EBT cards. Even when farmers markets do become SNAP-authorized retailers, barriers such as cultural or language obstacles, inconvenient hours, product mix, transportation and the perception that market prices are higher exists.

With USDA programs like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and White House programs like Let’s Move already creating momentum, there is an historical opportunity for the USDA and Congress to connect nutrition policy with agricultural policy.

As more and more U.S. citizens are eligible for SNAP benefits, ensuring that they have access to healthy choices at farmers markets is not only good for them—it’s good agricultural viability, local economies, and community cohesion.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • USDA and other government and private funders can support leadership development within the farmers market community by facilitating the development and capacity of state and regional farmers market organizations.
  • Similarly, these organizations should fund a nationwide technical assistance program that provides train-the-trainer, mentorship, and teaching opportunities for farmers market practitioner-leaders to disseminate best practices in a peer-to-peer format.
  • Farmers markets fulfill a public service by operating EBT terminals. They should not bear the entire cost of operating them.  This cost should be subsidized by USDA, public agencies, state groups, community-based nonprofits, and foundations.
  • Farmers markets should evolve and experiment with new models that can help address the awareness, convenience, product, price perception, and cultural issues.
  • Government can increase support for education and outreach efforts for SNAP shoppers to patronize farmers markets.
  • Congress should appropriate $4 million for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to equip more farmers markets with EBT terminals, and allocate 15% to a nationwide technical assistance program.
  • Congress should explore the creation of various incentive programs to entice SNAP shoppers to farmers markets as part of the 2012 Farm Bill.

“While farmers markets play an important role in improving access to fresh fruit and vegetables for ALL consumers, they also make valuable contributions to the viability of rural economies,” notes Stacy Miller, Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition and a co-author on the report.  “We felt it was important to conduct this study to uncover and recognize the barriers to success these farmers markets are facing which limit positive outcomes in low-resource communities and limit income opportunities for farmers.”

The research process included literature reviews, surveys, and phone interviews, concentrating on ten states identified. The report reflects a spectrum of state-level stakeholders including SNAP agencies, anti-hunger advocates, statewide farmers market associations, and state departments of agriculture. Much of the research was concentrated on 15 states, some at the vanguard of this issue, and some lacking significant leadership capacity altogether. Each of these states, however, is in one way or another representative of the myriad of challenges and potential solutions.  In particular, legislation and partnerships in states like Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Washington offer promising sources of inspiration for other states looking to take leadership on the issue.

The Farmers Market Coalition would like to thank the many individuals and organizations who contributed to this report, either by serving on the Advisory Group, completing the state association survey in February 2010, or being interviewed.

Download (and share) the full report on-line here.

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