Farmers markets gain ground in accepting SNAP payments, but participation rate remains low
By Izania Gonzalez
Dan Rivera was a marketer by day, farmer by night before launching a full-time farm-based business around six years ago. Rivera runs Triple Green Jade Farm with his wife, Kimmy, and together they bake fresh bread with local flour they mill themselves.
After attending a handful of food justice summits at The Wild Center, Rivera was inspired to bring the ability to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to local farmers markets. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, 1,505 households in Essex County received SNAP benefits in the year 2020.
In 2018, Rivera got SNAP card readers running in the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake farmers markets. After a few seasons of running the program solo, he worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Essex County and its region-wide Adirondack Harvest program, to take over the operation, and expand it beyond just the two markets.
Along with accepting SNAP cards, CCE works with public health departments to promote the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). Under the program, WIC recipients are given FMNP coupons that can be used to purchase specific food from approved farmers, farmers’ markets, or farm stands.
Due to the geographic growth of efforts, SNAP is currently accepted at 46 markets and stands in the Adirondack region. However, the number of people swiping their cards or trading in coupons has been low. According to CCE Agriculture Issue Leader Carly Summers, programs like these are underutilized by the people they are designed to help. “There is close to only 50% redemption rate (with FMNP). They’re free dollars that could be going directly to our agricultural community but they’re not.”
Costly to operate
Olivia Swanson, an AmeriCorp Vista Volunteer with Adirondack Harvest, acknowledges that for some communities the problem is lack of customer base, compounded by the expenses of running the SNAP card reader and complications with redeeming the SNAP dollars.
On top of USDA licensing fees, the machine for swiping the EBT cards costs about $700. Then every time the card is swiped a .$15 transaction fee is applied, which the farmer’s market pays for. In addition to equipment fees, the machine requires data to operate so the market coordinators pay $22.95 a month for internet access.
The machine and program are not free, although there are grants available through USDA. In addition, there must be someone at the market each time to run the program. The process for customers at this point involves swiping their EBT card in exchange for tokens that the vendors will accept. The vendors then log these tokens so they can be reimbursed at the end of each market day.
The Farmers Market Federation has an initiative where they provide free machines for processing EBT cards that also don’t require the transaction fee, but those machines require a phone application to operate. This can create the unique problem of the application being on one person’s phone and then needing them to show up to the farmer’s market consistently to ensure the acceptance of SNAP benefits.
“There are a lot of hoops for small businesses to jump through in order to take SNAP. It’s something that farmers have to do out of the desire to provide local food to their community,” Summers adds, “it’s not something that’s going to be immediately profitable.” To put it into perspective: $1,782 SNAP dollars were spent at the Saranac Lake Farmers Market in 2021.
Slow to catch on
Even though the program has become more widely available at markets, there is still a slow uptick in people taking advantage of it.
Summers ponders the reasons behind the infrequent use, “part of it might just be not knowing where you can go. Part of it might be the perception that farmers markets are more expensive. Part of it could be the transportation issue. It could be that the hours of the farmers markets aren’t convenient for people’s job schedules.”
To offset the costs of buying local food, Adirondack Harvest supports the program Double Up Food Bucks. This incentive matches the value of SNAP benefits at approved farmer’s markets and mobile markets.
Not all, but a number of markets continue through the winter, creating a separate challenge. To try and encourage more people to come through for winter markets, communities such as Saranac Lake initiated an online order and pick up system on Saturdays. Summers was proud of the program, “I thought, all right, this is going to be the time for SNAP to really boost, but it didn’t happen.”
Streamlining the search
When food assistance dollars are distributed, they’re accompanied by a list of all vendors in the state, which can make searching for local food difficult. To simplify the search, CCE and Adirondack Harvest created local food guides, calendars, and a browseable section of their website.
Swanson took over the creation of flyers and calendars, and expanded their reach to create regional calendars which make it easier for people to see what’s available in their area and where. The Local Food Guide flyers specify what markets accept SNAP and FMNP in that region, what day and time they are set up, and what other farm stands or food hubs accept these programs throughout the remainder of the week.
Swanson remains hopeful that word will spread. “This market season we’ve seen new people using SNAP. Part of it is maybe word of mouth. You have to stick with it, which makes it hard.”