David Sandman

David Sandman

Field–grown tomatoes. Corn picked that morning. Blueberries. Cucumbers. Basil. Cantaloupe ripened on the vine to sweet perfection. Farm fresh eggs.

All those delicious things were part of my haul from the farmers market, which I make a ritual visit to every week. Markets are bursting right now with an abundant harvest reflecting the peak of summer. Soon enough, the season will change and it will be time for apples and pumpkins.

Fresh, local food from farmers markets became more available to people of all incomes when farmers markets began accepting payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Known long ago as food stamps, SNAP is a federal program that helps low-income households purchase food. Customers access their SNAP benefits using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. SNAP/EBT can be used at farmers markets to purchase fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy products, and baked goods.

New York State has been processing EBT payments at farmers markets since 2002, a game-changing moment in efforts to improve access to fresh, local, and healthy food. Across New York State, 439 farmers markets and farm stands accept SNAP, with more than $3.5 million redeemed in 2017. An estimated 60,000 New York households use SNAP at farmers markets. In New York City alone, about 20,000 SNAP recipients who shop at farmers markets make about 60,000 transactions totaling more than $1 million per year at GrowNYC sites.

A variety of food incentive programs help make things even more affordable and encourage healthy eating. For example, in New York City, a program called Health Bucks provides SNAP users with a bonus of $2 for every $5 they spend at a greenmarket. That 40% incentive payment can be used only on fruits and vegetables. Another incentive program, Double Up Food Bucks, is available in 12 counties in Western New York, with plans to expand to additional regions. Under the program, a family that spends $10 in SNAP benefits at a participating farmers market receives an additional $10 in Food Bucks coupons to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. Double Up Food Bucks, which now operates in more than 20 states, has a more generous match than many other incentive programs, providing a dollar-to-dollar match to SNAP benefits, up to $20 per visit to a participating market.

But there’s a crisis brewing, and access to affordable food at farmers markets is at risk. Earlier this summer, it was announced that the Novo Dia Group, a leading provider of the technology for processing SNAP payments at farmers markets, would shut down abruptly by the end of July. Approximately 40% of all transactions nationally go through Novo Dia software, including all 50 GrowNYC farmers markets and many others throughout New York State. Those farmers markets that rely on Novo Dia — and the customers who rely on those markets — were left in a lurch, without a clear alternative to process SNAP payments uninterrupted. (Transitioning to a different platform is more complicated than you’d think; there is a good explanation in this GrubStreet article.) And if you can’t use your SNAP benefits, you also won’t be able to use those food incentive programs that help people stretch their household budgets. Eliminating SNAP recipients’ access to affordable healthy foods at farmers markets would be a disaster.

Fortunately, the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs quickly stepped in to provide enough funds to support Novo Dia through the end of August, so that the height of the market season wouldn’t be disrupted. Even better, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo then brokered an agreement to support the technology for an additional six months, ensuring that not only New Yorkers but SNAP recipients across the country will continue to be able to use their benefits at farmers markets.

These are welcome stop-gap measures that buy time, but we need a viable long-term fix. Whatever the solution, rolling out new technology to the farmers markets and getting them online will take time. And there’s no time to waste.

The best solution would come from the federal government. That means engaging a qualified company to provide the needed technology to farmers markets across the country, facilitating a smooth transition to new software platform and equipment, providing the requisite funding, and ensuring that SNAP transactions and incentives continue to be processed without interruption. I can’t help but be skeptical though: the firm that was hired to take over the contract that supported Novo Dia seems not to have a plan in place or any track record of supporting SNAP transactions or incentives at farmers markets. It’s all pretty murky. And there is some concern that the plan is actually to zero-out federal funding for farmers markets’ purchase of SNAP/EBT payment processing equipment and services.

Absent effective federal action, states will need to step up with creative solutions. A number of states already have their own programs to help farmers markets pay for SNAP/EBT processing equipment, often through partnerships with private nonprofit organizations. California offers one model: its Department of Social Services provides free equipment to the farmers markets and pays all of the associated transaction costs and wireless technology fees. The State has its own contract with a wireless EBT-processing vendor, so markets in California have been relatively unaffected by the Novo Dia shutdown.

Eleven states offer wireless EBT equipment to markets and farmers, although the eligibility requirements and availability of funds varies. Idaho and Indiana, like California, also cover wireless and transaction fees to make it easier for farmers and markets — particularly smaller ones operating on thin profit margins — to accept SNAP and incentive payments.

What works in one state might not work for all; there are different pathways to success. But states frequently devise their own innovative solutions when necessary. There is an immediate need to ensure uninterrupted access to farmers markets for SNAP recipients, and that might take experimenting with new ideas. Now is the time for government to develop novel partnerships with private nonprofits, farmers, food justice advocates, and others to avoid going backward and to ensure that fresh, local, and nutritious food remains within reach for everybody. It is a basic necessity for a healthy life, not a luxury for the few.

As much as I love and support my farmers market, there’s a sour taste in my mouth knowing that it might become unaffordable for some of my fellow New Yorkers. There has been a fivefold increase in SNAP purchases at farmers markets since 2009. It would be tragic to lose ground because of something as seemingly trivial as a change in technology vendors. Thanks to Governor Cuomo, New York has done an admirable job of stepping up in the short-term. Now we need a sustainable long-term solution.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in Medium on August 22, 2018

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