When the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly called food stamps—switched from paper “scrips” to reloadable cards in the late 1990s, farms and farmers markets were all but left out. At the time, the federal government provided point-of-sale card readers to supermarkets and other stores, but since wireless technology was in its infancy, direct agricultural sales were not included in the legislation. And even now, with the technology for wireless EBT card readers fully up and running, getting set up to accept food stamps can be expensive for farmers.
“If a farmers market wants an EBT machine, they have to pay almost $1,000 for the machine, then pay the transaction costs,” Michael Nischan, CEO of food-access advocacy group Wholesome Wave, said recently in a panel discussion on HuffPost Live.
But year over year, this appears to be changing. In 2012, the USDA (which runs the SNAP program) announced $4 million in funding to expand the availability of wireless point-of-sale terminals to farmers markers not currently accepting SNAP benefits. And just last week, USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon announced that the department is now expanding the eligibility for these grants to include direct-marketing farmers. This means a farm stand in Vermont or an urban farm in Chicago will now be able to apply for funds to lease or purchase point-of-sale equipment or pay for wireless access.
“Making sure wireless EBT machines are more readily available to farmers markets—and now farmers—is critical for SNAP families to have greater access to affordable, fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables,” Gus Schumacher, Executive Vice President & Cofounder of Wholesome Wave, tells TakePart.
These developments couldn’t come soon enough. Participation in the SNAP program reached its highest level ever in 2012, with more than 46 million families receiving the benefit. And at the same time, skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates signal the need for increased access to fresh, healthy foods in low-income communities.
For years, Wholesome Wave has worked to increase the quality of food available in underserved communities. Its Double Value Coupon Program, which offers farmers market shoppers double the value of their SNAP benefit, was fully launched in 2008 at farmers markets in Connecticut, California, New York and Massachusetts. Wholesome Wave now sees $2 million in SNAP purchases at its partner farm-to-retail venues, which include farmers markets, mobile markets, CSA programs, and farm stands.
The USDA reports that 3,200 farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers accepted SNAP in 2012—up from just 750 in 2008. During this time, these outlets saw a six-fold increase in SNAP redemptions, the USDA reports.
Overcoming the point-of-sale challenge in accepting SNAP leaves few excuses for the remaining markets and farms that do not accept SNAP or reach out to low-income consumers. SNAP purchases can make up a sizeable chunk of overall sales: At Wholesome Wave’s 300 some retail partner vendors, for instance, SNAP purchases make up 27 percent of sales, Nischan said.
“As a restaurateur, if I could identify 27 percent of any one of my markets,” Nischan told HuffPost Live, “I’d be marketing to them very aggressively.”