June 27, 2012

Farm Bill Considerations: The Case for Funding EBT Technology at Farmers Markets

Sarita Wahba

Sarita Wahba

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

The Waverly farmers' market, Baltimore, Md.

With the Farm Bill debate well under way, it’s important to remember that the policies being debated have a very real impact on the American public. With the current economy, many may find it difficult to justify new spending. But there is one program that, if implemented, will not only benefit both farmers and eaters, but may have the added benefit of job growth and economic activity. Indeed, this measure will take some initial investment, but it will give back once implemented. I’m talking about funding the technology to make it possible for SNAP participants to spend their SNAP dollars at farmers’ markets.

When I rise early on a Sunday morning, I only have one thing on my mind: getting to the farmers’ market, grabbing a hot cup of Zeke’s delicious coffee, and then wandering through the lanes of the farmers’ market under I-83. All week long I look forward to the joys of Baltimore’s Sunday Farmers’ Market, with the spectrum of aromas and bright flavors of the fresh fruits and vegetables. I also find it so inspiring to see so many people come out to support their local farmers, as well as their own efforts to eat healthy, locally produced foods. Unfortunately, at many farmers’ markets across the U.S., there is one group of people who are often inconspicuously missing from the throngs of people partaking in all of the wonderful things these markets have to offer: participants in the Supplementary Nutrition Incentives Program (SNAP).

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, uses Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) technology. Like credit cards, EBT requires a point-of-sale terminal, and access to electricity and a phone line (or batteries and a wireless connection) in order to process purchases. These EBT terminals are government-funded in brick and mortar grocery stores, but are unfunded as of yet at farmers’ markets. Essentially, this means that people cannot use their SNAP benefits to shop at farmers’ markets. We at CLF feel strongly that government funding of EBT technology at farmers’ markets will produce health benefits for SNAP participants, as well as economic benefits for farmers and local communities.

One might wonder why funding SNAP technology at farmer’s markets is important.  Aside from the above-mentioned sensory delights of a farmers’ market, the health benefits of fruits and vegetables have been well documented. These run the gamut from defending against illnesses associated with nutrient deficiencies, to protection against some cancers and chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Unfortunately, most Americans, but especially those in low-income brackets, do not eat even close to the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

Increasing EBT availability at farmers’ markets will provide SNAP participants additional outlets to purchase high quality, healthy food. Several studies have shown that SNAP participants who shopped at farmers’ markets increased their fruit and vegetable consumption. In particular, one study showed that low-income consumers who shopped at farmers’ markets ate approximately 1.4 additional servings of fruits and vegetables per each 1,000 calories consumed. Also, with many farmers’ markets selling fruits and vegetables at equal or lower prices than at traditional grocery stores, there is an opportunity for SNAP participants to get more nutritional value out of every SNAP dollar spent. Interestingly, prior to the conversion of food stamps to EBT benefits, farmers’ markets were a venue for purchasing healthy foods amongst America’s food insecure. However, with this transition that began in 1993, SNAP purchases at farmers’ markets decreased by half, between the years of 1993 and 2009.  This was not only detrimental for SNAP participants, but also for farmers who lost this SNAP revenue, and the subsequent loss in economic activity in local communities.

The importance of SNAP to economic activity in the U.S is impressive. The USDA estimates that every $5 of new SNAP dollars spent generates $9.20 in economic activity.  Other research has shown that for every $1 billion in SNAP dollars spent, there is a corresponding addition of 3,000 farm jobs and $340 million created in agricultural production. With regards to the impact of SNAP on farmers’ markets, it is has been shown that between 2010 and 2011, a 52 percent increase in the number of farmers’ markets accepting EBT was associated with $4 million in additional SNAP sales.

With these numbers in mind, think of the potential economic activity and job growth if SNAP benefits were accepted at farmers’ markets nationwide. To make this happen, we recommend the 2012 Farm Bill support the costs of purchasing wireless EBT terminals, as well as implementation, technical assistance, and marketing, at farmers’ markets. This would be a win for everyone involved, as the health and economic benefits of this investment could be experienced by SNAP participants, farmers, and local economies around the U.S.

Check out CLF’s policy brief, Reuniting SNAP Participants and Farmers’ Markets by Funding EBT Programs—A Public Health Priority, for a detailed explanation of why this funding is so important.


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