FNS Funds Research to Better Understand Farmers Market SNAP Acceptance

      Posted On: January 11, 2011

The goal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to aid those who have a difficult time purchasing food due to financial hardship. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency that administers SNAP and other nutrition programs, provides children and low-income people access to food and nutrition education. As FMC learned this year in the course of its Real Food, Real Choice research report (jointly authored by the Community Food Security Coalition and the Farmers Market Coalition), only .008% of SNAP benefits were redeemed at farmers markets in 2009. According to preliminary estimates, the number of farmers market organizations currently authorized to accept benefits is still fewer than 1,000. 2010 data is expected to be released shortly.

The good news is that FNS has an ongoing interest in learning how to better connect SNAP clients to farmers markets, and initiated a competitive bidding process in mid-2010 to contract a research team to investigate the accessibility of FNS programs at farmers markets with a focus on SNAP access. After the bids had been submitted, Westat, a research firm based out of Rockville, Maryland, emerged as the winner and received the multi-million dollar contract to conduct the research.

The project’s efforts have been divided into two tasks. The first phase will focus on interviews and surveys given to farmers market managers. The surveys will focus on investigating market operations and the benefits and barriers to participation in FNS nutrition assistance programs. These include all of FNS programs active at farmers markets (WIC, CVV, FMNP, Senior FMNP as well as SNAP). To provide a clear picture representative of the vast variety among farmers markets, Westat will include three different types of markets: those that are fully operational with SNAP access with clients using SNAP benefits, SNAP-authorized markets with no SNAP client use at those markets in FY 2009, and markets which are not SNAP-authorized. The total anticipated cost for the research is estimated at $3.5 million.

According to Kelly Kinnison, Social Science Research Analyst at the FNS Office of Research and Analysis, the goal of this research is to inform  agency initiatives to expand farmers market participation in federal nutrition programs.  “Specifically, FNS is interested in describing (1) the variety of ways in which farmers markets currently operate, including their funding sources, business models, logistics, motivation, and challenges; (2) the reasons for choosing to participate in FNS nutrition assistance programs; (3) barriers to participation in FNS nutrition assistance programs; (4) the variety of incentive programs operating in famers’ markets; and (5) farmers markets connections to support and umbrella organizations and other community organizations and institutions.”

Of the two surveys to be conducted in Task I, the first is already underway, consisting of in-depth phone interviews with nine farmers market managers, about half of which were actually visited on site. Selected markets included
those in Atlanta, GA, Boston, MA, Detroit, MI, Philadelphia, PA, Wytheville, VA, Fort Pierce, FL, Mobile, AL, Overland Park, KS, and Sitka, AK. According to Kinnison, “market managers were provided $50.00 as incentive for their participation in this research. ”

Nicky Uy, Farmers Market Program Manager at the Food Trust, was one of the interviewees, responding to questions about market operations, as well as about the acceptance of WIC, SNAP, and FMNP. When asked for further comments, she mentioned “grants that supported EBT at markets like the AMS grants were very beneficial; operating EBT at markets is expensive from an equipment and staffing standpoint, meanwhile brick and mortar food retailers are eligible for a free machine and their EBT fees are covered.”

Further information will be collected regarding the prices of SNAP eligible foods such as vegetables, fruits, and dairy products. The second survey, scheduled for spring/summer 2011, will select a representative sample of 2,000 farmers markets, approximately one-third of the 6,132 operating markets identified in the AMS Farmers Market Directory, in an effort to learn more about market operations and the dynamics influencing participation in FNS nutrition assistance programs.

After the completion of Task I, scheduled to end in 2012, FNS expects to direct researchers to begin Task II of their research project, pending continued funding. Task II will compare two demographically similar areas with multiple farmers markets. The objective of the research is to study SNAP participants shopping patterns, and how incentive programs and educational outreach increase SNAP redemption at farmers markets. In one area, a sample of about 2,000 SNAP clients would be selected and provided with one of the following: (1) information about famers markets that accept EBT in the region, (2) information and a $5 incentive for use at a farmers market, (3) information and a $10 incentive for use at a farmers market, or (4) SNAP benefits as usual. Data from SNAP households in a comparable area will be used as a control, where the SNAP participants are provided with no particular incentives or education regarding farmers markets.

Many in the farmers market community are excited about the resources FNS has invested  in this research project. “I see this as a positive step forward in bridging the gap between low-income communities and local farmers,” said Stacy Miller, Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition. “But FNS still has a long way to go in  reaching their target of 2,000 farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits by 2015.”

Amidst the excitement about increasing SNAP participation at farmers markets, others see a need for long-range planning about the best vehicle for getting SNAP technology, and technical assistance to farmers markets.  The Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) is presently the most significant source of federal funding available for helping farmers markets accept SNAP.  In 2010, FMPP exceeded its congressional mandate to devote 10% of funds toward SNAP/EBT at farmers markets, and awarded a full 30% of resources to those projects, amounting to more than $1.2 million going to 27 new and eight existing EBT projects. Because the program has a zero budget baseline in the next Farm Bill, there is no guarantee that the program will exist after 2012, nor that it will continue to set aside 10% of resources for EBT projects. The ambiguous nature of continued funding from FMPP causes many to believe that other sources of funding must be made available. Funds, either through FMPP or alternative programs in FNS, could help markets overcome initial technological and staffing challenges to implement SNAP programs at farmers markets, and to support their ongoing outreach and education in low-income communities.

Other farmers market advocates are more focused on the immediacy of utilizing FMPP funds for the here and now. They advocate for a “strike while the iron is hot” approach to make use of the FMPP budget while it still exists to integrate SNAP acceptance into more farmers markets. As indicated in this year’s “Real Food, Real Choice”, there are already many recommendations for potential solutions that could dramatically accelerate the pace of SNAP adoption at market. Many supporters would prefer if FMPP money went towards putting these solutions into practice right now, instead of funding more research.

Kate Fitzgerald, a Washington DC policy consultant on food and agriculture, echoes some of these concerns. When asked how FNS could use information that is already available, she said “FNS’ research  would benefit from paying more attention to the creative and exciting work that NGOs all over the country are already doing to link SNAP participants with farmers markets… these groups have valuable data and strong relationships with communities that would help all of us visualize the best solutions for SNAP challenges.” She shared some of the same frustrations with the time delay between completing FNS research and implementing the results of that research to actually improving the connection between SNAP participants and farmers markets. “We don’t necessarily need to wait the several years until their study is done,” she said, “especially because it may not have the same level of depth as the information these groups [NGOs] already have.” Granted, the complexity of government programs and the need for checks, balances, and proper oversight, may lead to some delays not felt on a more grassroots project level.

Those working at the markets, and especially those working with SNAP clients, however, feel first-hand the immediacy of needing to bring SNAP dollars into farmers markets for their clients’ health and the financial viability of local farmers. The hope is that FNS’ recent research initiatives portend of even greater investment in solutions—solutions that are well-informed, strategic, and sustainable in the long-run.

As this project unfolds, there is a clear sense of excited anticipation that the farmers market community, SNAP clients, and government agencies that serve both are coming together to bolster a community based food system that’s more accessible and equitable for farmers and for the consumers that depend upon them.  Initial results from the first phase of research are expected to be made available this Spring.