Fresh Food in a SNAP! Getting Healthy Eats onto More People's Plates in Tough Times

With the U.S. economy in freefall, the number of people receiving federal food assistance benefits grew by nearly four million nationwide in 2008. In October the Food Stamp program, whose roots stretch back to the Food Stamp Plan of 1939, was renamed SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), to signal a stronger focus on nutrition - on helping low-income Americans put healthier food on their plates.

While SNAP funds can be used to buy Doritos and Twinkies, after a decade of public health alarms about obesity, heart disease and diabetes, program administrators are trying to reverse the longstanding trend of poor people often eating the least nutritious food. This has strengthened advocates' arguments that farmers' markets should be outfitted to accept payment using the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) debit card system that replaced paper Food Stamps a decade ago.

Items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits at farmers' markets include the whole cornucopia of meat, fish, produce, eggs, dairy, bread and other baked goods, as well as products like jam and honey. However, getting the payment system in place has been complicated, because markets don’t have the electric hookups and phone lines to allow individual vendors to process EBT payments.

Today, New York is a national leader in making SNAP work at farmers' markets. From 2002 to2007, Food Stamp dollars spent at the state’s farmers' markets grew from just $3,000 to $90,000. By 2008, 112 markets were equipped with EBT technology. Even so, that’s just over a quarter of the roughly 400 farmers' markets throughout New York.

Diane Eggert, director of the New York Farmers' Market Federation, anticipates that SNAP dollars spent at the state’s farmers' markets will increase "three to four times this year over last, based on the growing interest in access to local food and greater need for food stamps as unemployment skyrockets." The Federation administers New York’s farmers' market EBT program, so I asked Eggert why so many of the markets still don’t accept SNAP payments.

"It’s time consuming and there’s a lot of back-end labor," she explained. Getting the EBT technology into a farmers' market is just the first step. Along with the machines, the markets are issued tokens or other scrip that SNAP participants purchase and then use to buy food. The vendors, in turn, redeem the scrip for cash. EBT sales and use of the scrip must be carefully tracked and logged.

In addition to handling the administrative work, more outreach is essential. "Promotional work needs to be done so that consumers know they can use their SNAP allocation at farmers' markets," Eggert said. The Federation is working hard to spread the word through food pantries and other community service organizations. They also do outreach through WIC (Women, Infants and Children), the federal program that funds supplemental food for pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children.

Through its Farmers Market Nutrition Program, WIC also gives money to 46 states to issue coupons that can be used to buy food at farmers markets authorized to accept them. In 2007, more about 1,300 farmers markets, road side stands, and farmers in New York State alone were authorized to sell food to WIC coupon holders. While the dollar amounts are tiny - just $24 for an entire season in New York, for example - the hope is that they will introduce low income residents to local sources of fresh food.

All told, as of June 2008 there were 605 farmers' markets nationwide equipped with EBT technology, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. But while some states, such as California, Connecticut, Michigan, and Missouri, are rapidly increasing the number of farmers' markets that accept SNAP benefits, others have only a few. Those of us who routinely shop at the markets can help by asking whether they have EBT. If the answer is no, be prepared to explain that not only will accepting SNAP benefits help low-income Americans eat better food, it will increase market sales and support for local farmers.

While Eggert called New York unique in running the SNAP program at farmers' markets state-wide, markets across the country that accept EBT funds "tend to do an excellent job of outreach," she said, adding, "This effort is in its infancy. But the U.S.D.A. is encouraging it, and they are working on developing guidelines."

Meanwhile, much more outreach is needed to sign people up for SNAP benefits. Income levels of people who are eligible to receive benefits this year range from about $13,500 for a single person to $18,200 for a family of two, $27,500 for a family of four, and so on.

As unemployment rises and the nation continues shedding jobs, at least 30 percent of eligible Americans and immigrants are not enrolled for this crucial form of food assistance, so every voice is needed to help spread the word!

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