By Melissa Schweisguth
Our industry holds a vision of feeding the world organically, yet accessibility and cost can challenge those with limited incomes. Government initiatives designed to connect producers and Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) recipients are beginning to address these, but many hands are needed to maximize their potential.
Where budget is a concern, whole foods including produce, animal products, grains, legumes and nuts are an affordable solution, far cheaper and often more nutritious than processed items. Savings, and producer benefits, are greatest when consumers purchase through direct channels such as Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA’s), farms and farmers markets.
However, citizens in lower income brackets, such as SNAP users, may have difficulty accessing these. Many live in inner city or rural areas termed “food deserts” due to the absence of full-service groceries, let alone farmers markets or farms. They’re left to rely on local stores with mostly nutritionally unbalanced processed foods and limited produce and staples.
Though farmers markets and CSA’s are multiplying, less than 20 percent of markets accept SNAP, according to Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets, a report from the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) and the Farmers Market Coalition. The report also notes that SNAP spending at famers markets used to be higher, but has decreased over 70 percent since 1994, when Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards replaced paper coupons and markets were suddenly unable to process them. Where markets accept SNAP, lack of transportation and awareness limit consumer participation.
To help close these gaps, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has allocated expanded resources to enroll vendors and educate SNAP recipients about local options. As a result, SNAP redemption at farmers markets has increased since 2008, but the potential for growth is far greater. It benefits both producers and eaters to build participation. Food purveyors can gain revenue and support social equity values aligned with broader organic principles. Consumers receive better nutrition - addressing diet-related conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, and how to avoid synthetic inputs and additives that negatively affect humans and the environment.
Organic farmers markets and growers are leading the way, providing examples for others. The Portland Farmers Market (PFM) and nearly 1,000 other markets accept SNAP. Anna Curtin, Marketing and Outreach Specialist at PFM, shared her insights. Markets must apply to become a SNAP retail location and USDA provides a free EBT processing machine upon approval, though larger markets such as PFM opt to buy wireless models. At PFM, SNAP shoppers buy tokens with their benefit cards and vendors exchange the tokens for cash, a common system across markets.
PFM promotes the initiative through vendor education, on-site signage, e-news-sletters, website content, social media and outreach to organizations addressing hunger, nutrition, aging and family issues. “It’s all about building relationships and working with other organizations to get the word out. Clarity in messaging is also important,” Curtin advises.
The community rallied to create a token match program funded by donations at two locations, providing up to five dollars of free tokens for EBT purchases. Curtin notes that overall EBT use has doubled since these incentives launched, and sees them as critical drivers for further growth. The PFM website offers a toolkit to help others establish EBT matching.
The benefits are clear all around. “Vendors love it. When they redeem tokens they see the impact. SNAP users are blown away that they can use [their benefits] at the market and want to spend their dollars there. They’ve told us they wouldn’t be able to buy fruit and vegetables otherwise,” Curtin remarks.
Individual farms and CSA’s can also apply to accept SNAP, though enrollment is a bit more involved. The Siskiyou Sustainable Co-operative recently became the first CSA in Oregon to sign on. The Co-op has undertaken other food security efforts such as obtaining a grant to provide free produce to senior citizens, so the SNAP program was a natural. Maud Powell, CSA coordinator and co-owner of Wolf Gulch Farm, spearheaded the process, which she characterizes as somewhat challenging but well worth it. “It was a lot of work, but we never faltered because it was in line with what we were doing, and we felt great about it.”
Powell credits USDA FNS staff for invaluable guidance and advises applicants to “create an ally [with your liaison] at USDA.” Maud also encourages farms and CSA’s to “think creatively and have patience,” since the application is designed for retail locations with physical goods. “A USDA inspector came out and asked to see our inventory. I pointed to our fields and he took a lot of pictures. We [ultimately] had to wait until the CSA started, [when] I took pictures of pack out and boxes so they could see what was being sold.”
These success stories demonstrate the benefits of expanding such programs nationwide. Organic advocates, from growers to consumers, can play a key role to make this happen. Offering guidance in this direction, Andy Fisher, Executive Director of CFSC and co-author of the CFSC-FMC report, reflected on progress to date, challenges and next steps. He says he’s hopeful about recent gains and anticipates these will continue, though policy changes and incentives are needed to optimize participation.
Fisher identified farmers market staffing capacity and pricing as the two biggest challenges and encourages policy groups and citizens to push for allocations in the forthcoming Farm Bill addressing these. Awareness among SNAP users is another limitation, making ongoing promotion critical. Cultural factors, transportation issues and market hours and locations must also be considered, and additional partners are important, says Fisher. “The public health community needs to be more involved. Ultimately this is a public health issue, not a farm or food access issue.”
For those who want to get involved, Curtin and Powell recommend the USDA FNS and Farmers Market Coalition websites for guidance. Curtin says she’s also found great promotion ideas in the CFSC-FMC report. The timing is ripe and tools are at hand. Let’s dig in.
Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets, www.foodsecurity.org/pubs.html#fmsnap
Farmers Market Coalition farmersmarketcoalition.org. • USDA FNS www.fns.usda.gov/snap/ebt/fm.htm. • Portland Farmers Market www.portlandfarmersmarket.org • Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative www.siskiyoucoop.com. • Community Food Security Coalition www.foodsecurity.org.
Melissa Schweisguth is a writer and consultant focused on socially responsible business, who serves as Director of Membership and Education at the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association.