May 15, 2012

USDA Gets Fresh with SNAP Dollars: Funding for EBT at Farmers’ Markets

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Last week, USDA did a graceful end-run around the Farm Bill, benefiting both SNAP participants and the farmers who sell at farmers’ markets.

As the Farm Bill is being negotiated by the House, Senate, and their respective agriculture committees, the earliest that we can expect resolution on the bill is late July—and that’s a very optimistic estimate. But on Wednesday, May 9, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced that USDA will fund—to the tune of $4 million—efforts to purchase EBT machines for some of the farmers’ markets that lack them. This $4 million grant demonstrates a commitment to public health on the part of USDA, and the sidestepping maneuver, which will keep the momentum going despite legislative slowdowns (i.e., Farm Bill politics), further shows that USDA understands the importance of making fresh foods available to all citizens, while supporting U.S. farmers.

Ever since SNAP shifted from paper food stamps to a system dependent entirely upon EBT machines, there has been a rift between retailers who are equipped with EBT and those who are not. And while USDA provided many brick-and-mortar retailers with EBT machines, it had not done so for farmers’ markets. Until now.

This push to provide farmers’ markets with EBT machines has been in the works for some time now, and this recent triumph represents a win for CLF and the many organizations advocating for improved food systems, such as the Farmers Market Coalition, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Fair Food Network, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and more (see signatories, below).

In November, 2011, we helped write an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun that explained this issue. Here’s a blogpost about the November 15, 2011, op-ed, in which the authors— Tom Albright, Holly Freishtat and the CLF’s own Bob Lawrence —argue in favor of a “win-win” for consumers and farmers. Here are further thoughts on the issues we raised in the op-ed, in a subsequent blogpost.

Also in November, 2011, CLF was one of 40 signatories on a letter initiated by the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition, to USDA Secretary Vilsack urging funding of $4 million for EBT machines in farmers’ markets. (The letter is available here.) We were in the good company of organizations such as APHA, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Fair Food Network, Farmers Market Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. CLF has been heavily involved with the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition since before its launch at the end of 2011, and serves on its steering committee.

The need for EBT machines at farmers’ markets has been well documented. In 2010, the USDA noted that 18 percent of farmers’ markets are authorized to accept SNAP, and that the $4 million will help add 4,000 additional markets to the list of those accepting EBT. USDA also notes that while there are over 7,100 farmers markets in the U.S., only about 1,500 of these currently have the capacity to accept EBT.

According the USDA, “The $4 million in funding provides SNAP participants greater access to fresh and healthy food, while supporting American farmers and local economies.” Let’s hope that the funding will quickly enable more people to buy fresh, local food this summer, as the farmers’ market season kicks into high gear.

In addition, CLF is concerned about the threats to funding for SNAP and will continue supporting partners to make sure that it is not slashed in the next Farm Bill, as some predict it will be. It would be a shame to make it easier for SNAP participants to buy fresh food, and farmers to get their business, just as the funding for SNAP is drastically reduced.

For more insights into the issues, check out this a blogpost by National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and this blogpost by the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition.

Photo: by NCReedplayer via Flickr, Creative Commons license

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