Major Farmers Market Study Released by FNS
Posted On: November 7, 2013
The benefits of farmers markets accepting SNAP are generally understood and appreciated, making fresh produce more accessible to low-income Americans, and providing vendors with an increasing source of revenue: $2.7 million in 2004, $4.3 million in 2009, and $16.6 million in 2012.
Despite these increases, use of SNAP dollars at farmers markets is limited: in 2012, only 0.02% of all SNAP benefits were accepted at farmers markets and farm stands. This compares to 0.2% of all American consumer food dollars – 10 times that of SNAP. Further, only about one-quarter (2,091) of the nearly 8,000 farmers markets operating in April 2013 accepted SNAP. As such, the benefits seen thus far represent only a fraction of the potential that can be expected from greater use of SNAP at markets.
A variety of barriers to SNAP use at farmers markets has been identified, both anecdotally and in reports such as Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets, published by CFSC and FMC in 2010. In 2011, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Office of Research and Analysis initiated a three-phase research project in partnership with Westat, a professional research firm, to gather systematic data around the barriers to SNAP use at farmers markets in order to be able to reliably answer questions from policy makers and inform and develop innovative ways to overcome these barriers.
The first phase of this research focused primarily on understanding how farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers (DMFs) operate and the barriers prohibiting greater use of SNAP at markets. This phase also incorporated a limited exploration of SNAP users’ barriers, and how financial incentive programs for SNAP participants work at markets. The second phase will dive deeper into barriers on the consumer side of SNAP use at farmers markets; the third phase will explore incentive programs in greater detail, mapping the roles and relationships of funders, facilitators, and on-the-ground operators of incentives.
Farmers Markets and SNAP
After issuing formative research findings with nine case studies in January 2012, final first phase findings were published in April 2013. The in-depth research, based on responses to a 29-page survey of market managers, analyzes farmers market structures and operations in an effort to better understand characteristics related to markets’ acceptance of SNAP. Across several dozen variables, the research compares markets that are authorized to redeem SNAP benefits with those that are not SNAP authorized.
A strong majority (84.3%) of survey respondents self-identified as “market managers” (p. 22). Most respondents (87.3%) indicated that they are responsible for multiple tasks, including financial, administrative, and/or outreach (p. 22). As such, managers may feel that they don’t have the capacity to add more programming. Further, nearly all (93.9%) respondents had worked for their respective markets for less than five years (p. 23). While 4 out of 5 (80.0%) respondents indicated that they are aware that farmers markets can participate in SNAP (p. 57), they may lack a strong understanding as to how SNAP actually works at markets.
Potential barriers to farmers markets accepting SNAP
Not surprisingly, SNAP-authorized markets with SNAP redemptions in 2011 were more likely to perceive “many benefits” (p. 86) and less likely to perceive “many barriers” (p. 89) to SNAP than never-authorized markets. As such, the USDA may have an opportunity to promote stories of markets that are SNAP authorized and their experiences with the program. Some of the potential barriers identified in the study are discussed below.
Potential Barrier: Smaller markets may lack capacity to introduce more programming
One barrier to accepting SNAP may be market size: in 2011, authorized markets that redeemed SNAP were bigger than never-authorized markets, both in terms of annual operating budget (p. 36) and annual sales (p. 37).
Further, never-authorized markets were more likely to be run by volunteers (p. 22).
In addition to annual operating budget and annual sales, a market’s organizational infrastructure and policies may be an important indicator of how much support may be needed to effectively implement SNAP, as larger markets are more likely to have the capacity to implement both regulations and SNAP. As noted by Sujata Dixit-Joshi, lead Westat author for this report, “SNAP authorized markets appeared more structured than those that were never SNAP authorized. This implies that they worked in partnerships and often operated on more than one day each week. They also had more requirements for vendors.”
Potential Barrier: Markets in less urban areas may require additional assistance
Geographic location influences the customer base of any retail operation, including farmers markets. Never-authorized markets seem to be more rural, as they were less likely to indicate close proximity to other businesses and to public transit (p. 25-26).
The USDA may wish to further research physical access and surrounding food retail options to determine their role in a market’s implementation of SNAP.
Potential Barrier: Vendor perceptions may limit acceptance
The data suggest that vendors may be a sticking point for SNAP authorization. Never-authorized markets were more likely to attribute not accepting SNAP to vendor preference (p. 90), and to report vendors serving as decision-makers about the market’s SNAP participation (p. 58).
At never-authorized markets, the biggest reason that SNAP is not accepted by all vendors is a lack of infrastructure or equipment (p. 60). As the USDA began sponsoring funding to provide free wireless Point of Sale (POS) devices to farmers markets in 2012 (and, beginning in 2013, to farmers selling at farmers markets), this barrier is thankfully being addressed. At the end of September, FNS awarded a contract to the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP) to disseminate of POS machines, with some funding allocated to the provision of technical assistance to markets and farmers to aid in the SNAP authorization process and the implementation of EBT.
By accepting SNAP, farmers and farmers markets may become more accessible to a new market of customers – 94.6% of authorized markets with SNAP redemptions in 2011 indicated that increased sales for producers were a benefit of accepting SNAP (p. 87). With this information, USDA may be able to overcome non-participation and vendors’ negative perceptions of SNAP by working with authorized vendors to determine how to more effectively communicate the benefits of accepting SNAP.
Potential Barrier: The costs associated with SNAP are perceived to be too substantial.
The strongest barriers to accepting SNAP among never-authorized markets all revolve around cost (p. 90). The financial aspects of increased staffing needs appear to be slightly more concerning than the other financial implications.
While cost is a major barrier to entry, it does not seem to be a reason for discontinuing SNAP; though the data may not be as reliable given the low number of respondents for this question (n=31), cost was not a main reason for discontinuing SNAP acceptance (p. 95).
As ongoing costs are a major concern, the USDA and other groups may wish to explore how to most effectively message around costs, which may involve pointing to the increased sales that can be expected from accepting SNAP.
Direct-Marketing Farmers (DMFs) and SNAP
Data in the report provide valuable insight into DMFs and potential barriers that may be impeding greater uptake of SNAP among this group. Importantly, awareness does not seem to be a barrier to acceptance of SNAP: nearly all surveyed DMFs indicated that they know they can participate in SNAP (p. 62) – a higher level of awareness than that reported in the farmers market manager survey population.
Primary barrier: Insufficient customer demand
Although DMF awareness of SNAP may be near-universal, some may question whether customer awareness is as high: the strongest stated barrier for DMFs – even more challenging than the cost of implementing SNAP – is insufficient customer demand (p.92). This was also noted as the primary reason for SNAP-authorized farmers not conducting any SNAP transactions in 2011 (p.99). The second phase of this FNS research will likely provide insight into ways to increase the number of SNAP customers at farmers markets.
For Direct Marketing Farmers – more so than for farmers markets – increased communications with SNAP participants may go a long way in increasing customer demand. As noted by Sujata Dixit-Joshi, “ Farmers markets promote their markets as accepting SNAP at the market as well as other avenues so as to attract [SNAP participants] to the market. However, DMFs usually promote the program at the market – i.e. to SNAP participants who already shop at the market.” (Emphasis added)
Not only do markets report more community outreach, they also are more likely to disseminate information in a number of key ways, implying that, as SNAP retailers, markets may be more effective than individual farmers to grow the SNAP customer base.
Primary barrier: Some farmers struggle to access equipment/infrastructure
A lack of infrastructure/equipment was another main reason for SNAP-authorized DMFs not redeeming SNAP in 2011 (p.99). Among DMFs that don’t accept SNAP at all locations, insufficient equipment/infrastructure is the biggest reason why (p. 64). As noted above, the USDA’s 2013 change in policy—to allow DMFs to be eligible for free wireless POS devices in the same way that market organizations became eligible in 2012— may help alleviate this barrier.
Potential barrier: Smaller-scale farmers may need more support to maintain participation in SNAP
As seen with farmers markets, DMFs that redeemed SNAP in 2011 were more likely to report greater capacity than those that did not, in terms of full-time vs. part-time farming (p. 42); tenure (p. 42); annual sales (p.51); and access to a credit/debit card machine (p. 52).
Potential barrier: Farmers that started accepting SNAP due to pressure from an outside organization may be less likely to continue redeeming SNAP
Authorized DMFs that did not redeem SNAP in 2011 were more likely to indicate that a benefit of accepting SNAP was to demonstrate responsiveness to an outside organization’s interest (p. 88). As such, organizations putting pressure on individual DMFs to accept SNAP may increase the number of SNAP-authorized DMFs but may not be a reliable or sustainable method of increasing SNAP redemptions.
Further support needed: Sufficient information for participating farmers
When asked about what makes it difficult to accept SNAP, the only factor that resonated more among DMFs that redeemed SNAP in 2011 was getting enough information about the program from the appropriate agencies (p. 92). As such, the USDA may wish to consider reaching out to participating farmers to determine what information they feel they are lacking.
SNAP Clients and Farmers Markets
As noted above, the first phase of the research incorporated a limited exploration of SNAP users’ barriers to farmers markets. Researchers held focus groups with SNAP participants, and the discussions provided some interesting information about the benefits and barriers to shopping at farmers markets, as well as how the USDA can more effectively communicate the use of SNAP at farmers markets to recipients.
Benefits of Shopping at Farmers Markets
The focus group discussions, which began by exploring how participants shop for food, suggested that a main priority is value: healthy, high-quality food at good prices. One participant discussed his preference for buying greens at the farmers market rather than Safeway, since he perceives a greater value at the market:
“I go to the market because if I buy 5 pounds of greens I get 5 pounds of greens, there’s no stalks… [The ones you buy] at Safeway, you might have a pound left.” (Pg. B-7)
Another participant noted that although some farmers market produce may be more expensive, the higher quality makes it a better value:
“Farmers market fruits and vegetables are much fresher than what you would get at a regular store… They’re sometimes a little more expensive, but I prefer them for [freshness] alone.” (Pg. B-7)
The focus groups uncovered additional benefits of shopping at farmers markets, which included healthier produce, and supporting local farmers rather than large retailers:
“Farmers market foods are healthier – they don’t have none of that pesticide stuff sprayed on it like the big markets do” (P. B-6)
“I think we need to support farmers more now than ever. You can’t always count on fresh food, especially with the chemicals and stuff. If you’ve got farmers out there, you need to support them.” (Pg. B-8)
Importantly, in light of the recent federal discussions around cutting SNAP, incentives at farmers markets were discussed. Though participants appreciate the presence of incentive programs, many indicated plans to continue shopping at markets regardless of whether the incentive programs continued.
“(Though I didn’t receive an incentive in January or February, I would keep shopping at the market) because I enjoy shopping there. You see a nice diverse group of people there.” (Pg. B-8)
Barriers to Shopping at Farmers Markets
The groups also explored consumers’ barriers to using SNAP at farmers markets. The groups mentioned barriers that have been discussed extensively for years, including lack of transportation and farmers markets not meeting all of consumers’ needs.
“I’m not jumping on two buses to go to this market over here and then I have to carry (what I buy)? Huh-uh – I’m not going to do that.” (Pg. B-9)
Although some participants mentioned barriers that are unavoidable, such as not wanting to shop outside in the summertime, an actionable barrier that may warrant further follow-up was discussed as well: cleanliness of farmers markets. Some comments indicated a perception that farmers markets seem less sanitary than grocery stores. Some focus group participants worried that their fellow shoppers, who may be handling produce as they browse, may not be hygienic, which could impact the cleanliness of the produce they’re buying.
“(One lady said) she saw so many people in the farmers market picking over (the produce) and said she didn’t like so many people handling the food.” (pg. B-9)
It is unclear how widespread this concern may be, or to what extent it may be influencing consumers’ shopping patterns.
Ways to Increase Access to SNAP at Farmers Markets
After discussing benefits of and barriers of shopping at farmers markets, focus group participants introduced a number of ways to improve the process of using SNAP at markets.
Focus group participants had several suggestions for how to increase awareness of SNAP at farmers markets. Suggestions included posting flyers at supermarkets, libraries, bus shelters, food pantries, churches, recreation centers, and community health clinic, and sending home information with school children’s free/discounted lunch applications, and having case workers mention authorized farmers markets:
“We all have young kids – post some information at the clinic, because they’re always complaining that our kids are overweight.” (Pg. B-10)
“They could send it out with the lunch applications because the children that get the lunch, their parents use food stamps.” (Pg. B-10)
“They’re the ones that authorize you to get the stamps, so it would be good if they let you know where you can use ‘em!” (Pg. B-10)
Several participants noted that the community bulletin board at their local SNAP office should not play a major role in an awareness campaign, as the information on the bulletin board is generally seen as out-of-date.
Make it Easier to Use SNAP Benefits with Vendors
Although the logistics for using EBT cards at some markets can be relatively intensive, focus group participants generally did not view the process as a barrier. However, using SNAP benefits with certain vendors had been problematic for some participants, who noted two challenges: some vendors only want to accept cash or credit, and it can be difficult to identify those who do.
“I think because cash and VISA move faster… some of the vendors don’t want you to know that they take these (incentive) coupons because it slows down service.” (Pg. B-11)
“It’s not like they’re not willing to take them, but it makes their job harder as opposed to [when a customer pays in] cash.” (Pg. B-11)
“It never fails that there’s something you see that you want, and if you just have the card and not the cash, like [the vendor] says, it angers you.” (Pg. B-11)
As dialogue around increasing use of SNAP at farmers markets continues, both within USDA and among a variety of health and agriculture advocates, the findings in this report will likely help inform community-level strategies and national investments. Because the report appendix includes tables breaking down responses even further by region, state agencies and local practitioners seeking to support infrastructures that facilitate SNAP acceptance and redemption may also benefit from the data.