November 18, 2011
I’d like to contribute to the Farm Bill discussion initiated earlier this week in a Baltimore Sun op-ed penned by Tom Albright, Holly Freishtat and the CLF’s own Bob Lawrence. The op-ed called for farmers’ markets to be provided with electronic benefits transfer (EBT) technology, to ensure that they are able to process purchases made with SNAP benefits (otherwise known as food stamps). The authors rightly point out that providing EBT at farmers’ markets would provide both a financial boon for local farmers, and increased access to fresher, more nutritious food for SNAP participants, who often live in areas where such food can be hard to come by and difficult to afford. I encourage you to read the op-ed for more information on the cost and benefits of this provision, and would like to add a few additional points for your consideration.
Is EBT enough?
Though supporting farmers’ markets is a potentially bipartisan issue that just about anyone can feel good about, there can be a number of sticking points when discussing the value of providing them with publicly-funded EBT technology. First and foremost, some would argue that simply having EBT machines at farmers’ markets will not be enough to encourage people to redeem their SNAP dollars there, or to change their dietary behaviors. These are reasonable concerns, but fortunately there are educational and outreach efforts that are addressing such issues successfully and proving that the use of SNAP dollars at farmers’ markets truly can benefit those using food stamps while financially supporting our local farmers. These programs can accompany the implementation of EBT at markets to ensure that SNAP participants fully utilize this opportunity to buy fresh, local food.
Incentive programs work.
Among the most successful of these efforts so far are coupon programs like Baltimore Bucks and the Wholesome Wave foundation’s Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP), which increase the value of SNAP benefits when they are redeemed at participating farmers’ markets. These markets must already have EBT capabilities to take part. Wholesome Wave recently released a survey on their Double Value Coupon Program showing that it increased consumer participation in farmers’ markets, as well as recipient fruit and vegetable consumption. Farmers also benefited, with about half reporting that the program was very important to their business. Vendors accepting DVCP were also much more likely to see an increase in sales. Clearly, innovative incentive programs like this one can ensure the profitability of farmers’ markets while encouraging healthier behavior in consumers who rely on nutrition assistance.
Demand for local foods and SNAP participation are both on the rise.
Skeptics might point out that SNAP participation at markets is still relatively low where EBT is already available, but recent data from AMS shows that the percent of transactions from EBT in markets doubled from 2005 to 2009. The presence of incentive programs like double value coupons also increases participation in a given market. It may be safe to assume then that the numbers will continue to rise, especially in light of a recent USDA report that found the sales of local foods, including those at farmers’ markets, amounted to $4.8 billion in 2008 – a number several times greater than previous estimates. The department predicts locally grown foods to generate about $7 billion in sales this year, thanks in part to a steadily increasing demand among consumers. It is only reasonable that SNAP be allowed to keep up with this trend, and that farmers’ markets be able to fully reap the benefit.
And indeed, if unemployment and the number of Americans living below the poverty line continues to rise, as the Department of Labor has projected, we must ensure that the record amount of SNAP dollars in circulation allows Americans access to a healthy diet even in hard times, and is used to support local and regional farmers as much as possible.
Supporting local and regional farmers = more jobs.
And why is it so important to support local and regional farmers? It may not be immediately clear to everyone why they are given so much importance. A big part of the answer is that money going to local food producers is money that goes back into the local economy. This in turn has a number of positive effects on a community, including potential job creation. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, direct marketing channels – meaning arrangements like farmers’ markets in which a product is sold directly from the producer to the consumer – can contribute greatly to increasing local and regional food systems. In turn, the expansion of such food systems has the potential, according to the report, to create tens of thousands of additional jobs within the next several years. In fact, the report found that even modest public funding for 100 to 500 otherwise unsuccessful farmers’ markets a year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period. If additional support for farmers’ markets holds this much promise for local economies, it only makes sense to contribute to their growth by making them more accessible to SNAP participants.
So where are we?
Clearly, there is much to be gained from SNAP dollars flowing into farmers’ markets.
The technical feasibility is already there. What we need now is the funding to back it up, and the actual cost is not much (again, see the op-ed for further details). Right now, the federal budget lies in the hands of the Super Committee, whose members are more concerned with identifying programs to cut than ushering in any improvements to our social safety net.
We certainly hope that they can get behind a simple but effective strategy like this one, but if not, there is still hope. Two recent bill proposals – the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 1773, H.R. 3286) and the Expanding Access to Farmers Market Act (S. 1593) – include measures that would provide EBT technology to farmers’ markets. Various organizations, such as the Community Food Security Coalition and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are strongly pushing for Congress to adopt the provisions in these bills. Additionally, the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition has organized a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack urging the agency to take up the issue outside the legislative process. (Read the Letter-to-Vilsack-Nov-2011 here.)
With mounting evidence and support for this issue, providing EBT at farmers’ markets may very well be a victory in the making for local and regional farmers, local economies, and SNAP participants alike.