The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is working on an innovative research project that looks at food access at farmers’ markets. This study began as a means to better understand the workings of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, at farmers’ markets—the benefits and challenges, as well as the barriers formed when food “stamps” were no longer accepted as legal tender in 2005 (as stated in the Farm Bill), requiring benefits to be redeemed via electronic benefit transfer (EBT). This credit card-like system (EBT) resulted in drastically reduced acceptance of SNAP at farmers markets, which are historically off the grid businesses ran by volunteers and local farmers. SNAP is the nations largest food assistance program and one of the biggest pieces of the USDA budget pie, leaving farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and other urban agricultural projects unable to profit from this financial resource (In the past five years, the number of farmers markets and direct marketing farmers authorized to accept SNAP has increased 360%, and 52% between 2010 and 2011 alone).
Technological limitations are just one of the barriers of accepting EBT at farmers markets. The USDA, SNAP at Farmers’ Markets: A How-To Handbook, describes the process for accepting EBT at farmers markets and begins to touch on their additional struggles with outreach, administration, and acculturation. While the USDA is working to make the process for becoming authorized to accept EBT more relevant for farmers markets, this sophisticated research will help us all better understand how these small businesses work and the role they play in improving healthy food security so we can move forward as modernity and food access converge. Hopefully, this will also lead to policy changes that better accommodate farmers markets and better connects the farmers with the low-income consumers accessing SNAP. Organizations and communities working on the ground to improve these issues will also benefit from additional funding for these types of food projects as hunger relief, community, and economic growth opportunities.
The FNS study is comprehensive and threefold. The first piece looks at the administration of SNAP at farmers markets and their ability to address food security. The second piece analyzes patronage patterns of those redeeming EBT at farmers markets vs those redeeming at large grocery stores, where most EBT is spent. The contingent part of the study follows up on research that will look at incentive projects at farmers markets (ex. for every $1 of SNAP spent at farmers markets you get an additional $1 in farmers market tokens to spend). This part of the study will also collect information on additional farmers markets and organizational administration necessary to track this new kind of market data, as well as the added benefits and challenges we all face on the neighborhood, community, regional and state level.
FNS will be making reports on this study’s findings available to the public in the years to come. There is a lot of value to be had in being able to access aggregated challenges and benefits experienced across the nation. The patterns that will be identified and the associated analysis that will be provided by these community scientists will be fodder for the strong arguments that we’ll have to make as we continue to advocate for a better and more complete approach to hunger and healthy food access.
While FNS is at work on a national and more comprehensive study, Community Science published a report on a cluster evaluation on incentives at farmers markets using 4 organizations as case studies. This report highlights information from 2009-2011 and touches on the various types of organizations administering incentives, as well as such project’s values and impacts on communities, hunger, and policy.
These studies and their resulting reports are useful tools that other organizations and farmers markets can use as guides to implementing incentive projects at their own farmers markets. They offer an insight into hunger felt within all of our communities and suggest that incentive projects are one means to reconnecting our food system and communities. There are many types of models out there and further research and analysis is forthcoming; however, as the SNAP population changes this information will help influence policy, provide ideas, and build a community or organizations working on similar issues and projects.