Massachusetts Agencies Combine Forces to Promote EBT at Farmers Markets
Posted On: July 13, 2011
by Drew Love
Technology can sometimes be a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of progression. In the mid-1990s, the federal food stamp program (now known as SNAP) went under just such a technological transformation. Before the transition, food stamps had been a tangible paper currency that was handed over to cash register operators at grocery stores, bodegas, and farmers markets. It also came with its fair share of flaws. The constant doling out of this paper currency on a monthly basis, combined with the added burden of grocers having to go through a slow reimbursement process created an administrative bottleneck, not to mention a stigma amongst food stamp recipients. It was quite obvious when someone paid with food stamps, and this, according to some, deterred some food stamp recipients from even utilizing the benefits.
Fast forward to 2011, and the food stamp program is now referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and it functions with EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) technology. The EBT card works just like a debit card. This streamlined the entire process, from the first stage of crediting the EBT recipients account with money earmarked for food purchases, all the way to the point of purchase.
The only catch? If a grocer wanted to sell food to an EBT customer, then that grocer had to have a terminal that could process electronic payments. That is a small hurdle to overcome for grocery stores, and even corner stores, who had already been accepting electronic payments from credit cards and debit cards. However, It was a significant barrier to farmers markets. Not only did most markets not have these terminals, they rarely if ever had the more than $1,000 dollars that is typically required to purchase the terminal and pay for the monthly service charges.
Slowly but surely, those financial obstacles are being overcome, albeit with a patchwork of public, private, state, and federal resources. These combined efforts have results in a marked increase in SNAP redemption rates at farmers markets, but these rates still fall short of the pre-EBT marker. Translation? There’s still plenty of work to do.
Thankfully, innovative ideas and instrumental partnerships are being generated to connect low-income communities to the fresh, healthful food that’s available at farmers markets. One of those projects was spearheaded by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR). The two organizations joined forces in 2009 in order to support SNAP at Massachusetts farmers markets.
In 2009, DTA provided DAR with $50,000 to provide individual farmers markets with grants to:
- purchase or rent wireless point of sale terminals
- subsidize monthly fees and transaction fees
- conduct outreach to SNAP participants
- provide incentives for SNAP participants to use their benefits at farmers markets.
In November of the same year, DAR released an RFR in conjunction with four regional workshops to promote the funding opportunity to market managers. The hope was that farmers markets would complete the proposal, and DAR could provide funding for the most promising projects. The RFR soon solicited far more proposals than had been anticipated, and DTA and DAR worked together to secure an additional $20,000 from Wholesome Wave Foundation and $5,000 from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to meet the full demand.
After securing the funding, key partnerships were formed with the aforementioned Mass Farmers Markets and the Boston Mayor’s Office, The project’s initial scope was to provide funding to promote SNAP at 58 farmers markets across the Commonwealth during the 2010 season. Promotional materials and efforts included the development of site specific fliers that were distributed to DTA offices across Massachusetts (available in Spanish and English), development of materials that were distributed at WIC offices located near markets that accept SNAP, and development of informational materials that were distributed to market managers.
Additional promotion and outreach included a collaboration between DAR and The Food Project to conduct intensive outreach in Boston. A map of Boston farmers markets accepting SNAP was developed and distributed to market managers, WIC offices, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and food pantries and kitchens. The Food Project also developed billboards that were posted on buses and in T-stations throughout Boston. DAR also provided Frequently Asked Questions for SNAP recipients, technical assistance to market managers, and personal emails and phone calls to markets informing them about the program.
Programs began June 22nd with a kick-off event at the Dewey Square Farmers Market followed by four additional promotional events held at farmers markets across the state.
In an effort to identify best practices and effective methods of outreach, DAR sent program evaluation questionnaires to all 58 participating markets. Of those 58, 44 completed the survey for a response rate of 76%.
The evaluation report revealed data about outreach implementation (such as neighborhood fliers being the most popular promotional tool), as well as the efficacy of incentives in generating increased EBT sales at market. The latter data set proved to be one of the more important findings. Evaluating the mean EBT sales at farmers markets for non-incentive markets vs. incentive markets demonstrates quite clearly that incentive programs dramatically increase mean EBT sales. This information corroborates a number of other studies, including a previous paper by The Food Project, that demonstrate the incentive program’s ability to increase EBT sales at markets. In fact, incentive markets saw a nearly threefold increase in mean EBT sales when compared to non-incentive markets.
Lisa Damon, Farmers Market Nutrition Program Coupon Coordinator at DAR, was quick to point out that “while mean EBT sales were higher at incentive markets, it might be premature to state that incentives are the primary cause of higher mean EBT sales.” One of many other factors to consider is the location of the markets. The majority of incentive markets that are included in this report are from the Boston area. These Boston markets, due to their location in an urban center, are already predisposed to have higher redemption rates than those markets that are not near similar areas of high population density.
The evaluation also revealed critical information related to project development and refinement. In addition to being asked about outreach efforts and sales, market managers were also asked what type of assistance they frequently needed. It comes as no surprise that funding was the most frequently requested form of assistance. Managers also prioritized the need for coordinated outreach and administrative assistance, which likely overlap with the need for funding. Both forms of assistance are difficult, if not infeasible, without additional resources.
Looking ahead to 2011, DAR has assembles the information from their program evaluation to make a series of recommendations. They include the following:
• Continue to provide grants to farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits
• Grants to markets already accepting SNAP to support fees and promotional efforts
• Grants to markets interested in starting to accept SNAP to invest in infrastructure needs
• Update DAR website to provide more comprehensive information for market managers and links to other resources in Massachusetts
• Continue promotion of SNAP at farmers’ markets across the Commonwealth
• Send mailing to SNAP recipients informing them of farmers’ markets accepting SNAP
• Develop more rigorous reporting requirements to answer questions about effective outreach strategies and motivators for SNAP recipients
• Postcards completed by market shoppers when swiping cards at EBT/ credit card terminal
Moreover, DAR has laid out four primary objectives for future support of SNAP at farmers markets in MA. These opportunities are:
- Sponsor grants to 20 markets to start accepting SNAP: $50,000
- Sponsor grants to 30 markets currently accepting SNAP: $45,000
- Sponsor a mailing to 50,000 SNAP households: $30,000
- Sponsor data collection at SNAP farmers markets: $4,500
The total cost for complete implementation would be $129,500, a significant increase from the $75,000 utilized for EBT programs in 2010.
While it remains to be seen how much funding will be allocated for these programs, DAR and DTA are already in the midst of implementing a novel approach to EBT outreach with clear benefits to both parties and the constituencies they serve.
This novel approach is referred to as the Market Ambassador Program, and originated from two unique challenges faced by both DTA and DAR. DAR received feedback from market managers that it was difficult to find someone to operate the EBT terminal while at market. DTA noticed that they were having problems identifying work-related opportunities for individuals on their Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) program. After some discussion, DTA and DAR realized their challenges were like two matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In the Ambassador Program, DTA matches people from their TAFDC program with SNAP markets that need EBT terminal operators. The program is still in its infancy, with the first Ambassador trainings taking place in June. Nevertheless, it represents a mutually beneficial partnership that speaks to the power of interagency collaboration.