Market Incentive Programs – How Puerto Rico Gets it Right

      Posted On: October 19, 2016


When farmers markets work to both support and grow business for local farmers, and provide access to affordable, nutritious food across communities of all in-come levels, one word comes to mind: success. An innovative market incentive program launched in Puerto Rico takes this idea of success to a whole new level. And a recent report outlines just how the island is doing it.

A collaboration between Puerto Rico’s Agriculture and Family departments, El Mercado Familiar (Family Market Program), a program working within Tarjeta de la Familia (Puerto Rico’s version of the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, formally food stamps), was designed to meet the dual goals of both stimulating local food production, while increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables by low-income families.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, over $40 million in fruit and vegetable purchases by low-income families has boosted revenue for more than 500 Puerto Rican farmers participating in the program. Subsequently, this income boom created over 540 new farming and market jobs islandwide.

So, just how successful has El Mercado Familiar been? This stunning statistic puts it into perspective: Last year, participating Puerto Rican farmers markets accepted the same amount in Tarjeta purchases as compared to SNAP purchases in all 50 U.S. states combined. One farmer reported a staggering $685,000 in extra sales since the start of the program in 2013. And the future looks even brighter: Dr. Myrna Comas Pagan, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Agriculture predicts produce farmers will collectively earn more than $60 million per year from Tarjeta purchases when the program goes islandwide in 2017.

How does the program work?

Each month, the Tarjeta benefit card is loaded with funds for eligible low-income families to buy food. About $4, or 4% of every $100 in benefits can be used to buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers at participating farmers markets authorized by Puerto Rico’s Agriculture Department. The additional 4% in El Mercado Familiar benefits are embedded in the Tarjeta card, in a “pocket” of their own and are only redeemable at authorized markets. An impressive 78% of participants redeem the benefit exclusively reserved for El Mercado Familiar purchases, while also spending additional Tarjeta benefits that are free to be used at other food retail outlets.

El Mercado Familiar program is just one piece of the larger effort to improve Puerto Rico’s food security. The island currently imports more than 85% of its food – a 25% increase since 1980. Dependence on foreign food is a dicey prospect, one that Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Ag identifies as problematic in terms of shipping schedules and climate change; vagaries in either could leave the island susceptible to a food shortage. But it also exposes a ripe opportunity for Puerto Rican farmers to grow their business and supply the island with the fruits of their labor.

This blog post is based off a report written by food system consultant, Kate Fitzgerald and FMC board member, Gus Schumacher. Read the full report here to learn more about El Mercado Familiar.