Helping food stamp recipients shop at farmers markets near and far.
By Marian Burros • Photo by Kristen Taylor
With names like Boston Bounty Bucks, Fresh Checks, and Double Dollars, programs at a few farmers markets across the country—including some in the Capital foodshed—offer economically vulnerable people a deal they cannot refuse: as much as $20 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for $10.
Double-voucher incentive programs are beginning to take off across the country with help from private foundations, local governments, and now even the federal government.
Just for Yuppies?
Just in the nick of time. As farmers markets spring up nationwide—there were 5,274 last year, double the number in 2000—the buzz that poor people cannot afford to shop at them grows louder.
Those who run the markets don’t deny it. “We know sometimes the food is not as affordable,” said Bernadine Prince, co-director of the nine FreshFarm Markets in metropolitan Washington. “The whole idea of Double Dollars has made food more affordable. We hope the people will come and get fresh food and make it a habit.”
“Double vouchers are exploding,” said Gus Schumacher, a former commissioner of agriculture in Massachusetts and an undersecretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration who has been involved in making farmers markets accessible to low-income shoppers since 1986, a plan that also gets more money into the hands of small farmers.
The double vouchers are available to anyone on food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and to anyone who participates in the supplemental food program for women, infants, and children at nutritional risk (WIC). It is the latest effort to get people with limited incomes to shop at farmers markets. There are already programs that provide additional vouchers for fruits and vegetables to seniors eligible for food stamps and to WIC participants.
Twice as Nice
The first market in the Capital foodshed to offer double vouchers—and also one of the first in the country—was the Crossroads Farmers Market on the border of Takoma Park and Langley Park, Maryland.
According to Michelle Dudley, Crossroads’ executive director, the market began to offer double vouchers in 2007. By 2009, it was offering $10 for the first visit and $5 each visit. The program was so successful that it ran out of the money it had received from the city of Takoma Park and private foundations, so it had to continue raising additional money on a weekly basis in order to continue the project. “In June and July, our numbers were up over 300 percent because of the coupons,” said Dudley, “but we couldn’t keep up, and in August we offered only $3. Fewer and fewer people came. It was a huge deterrent.”
Dudley said the market also surveyed its customers. “People told us they wouldn’t be coming to the market if it weren’t for those benefits. They also said they can taste the difference. Senior citizens in particular express gratitude on a weekly basis.”
Market by Market
All too often, people eligible for these programs are not aware of them: Generally there has not been enough outreach from the farmers markets or from local government agencies publicizing their availability.
Just as the locavore movement began small and scattered, double vouchers are making their way on to the national scene slowly, market by market. Helping the poor shop at farmers markets is a recent phenomenon and there are still a number of barriers.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, the city refused to sign the necessary government papers in 2009, so double vouchers won’t be available until later this year.
But there are problems at every level. Unlike grocery stores, which have been doing business with food stamp recipients for years, it was only five years ago that farmers markets began accepting food stamps, and even today, not all of them do: It’s up to each individual market whether it will buy the equipment necessary to accept them.
EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) systems, now used in place of paper food stamps, are dependent on wireless technology equipment. A food-assistance recipient must swipe what is essentially a debit card in order to access his or her benefits (aka food stamps). Few recipients even know they can use their food stamps at participating farmers markets.
With WIC produce vouchers, each state is allowed to decide whether the vouchers can be used at farmers markets. No special equipment is required to process these vouchers, but, again, it is up to individual vendors whether or not to accept them.
For the double-voucher program, it is up to each market to decide whether to participate. Many of them simply do not have the funds it takes to match benefits. Farmers markets, which are often run by volunteers, may be interested in offering double vouchers but lack the resources for fundraising and administering the program.
Up until now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not made it any easier. It requires that market organizers get special waivers to offer the double vouchers. In addition, grocery stores receive the EBT equipment for nothing, whereas farmers markets have to pay about $1,000 for one. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan is aware of the financial barriers to both expanding the EBT system and offering vouchers to make those benefits go even further and is providing more money to reduce the burden on the markets. She said the agency is also working to simplify the process for being certified.
Nonprofits in the Lead
The biggest mover in the double-voucher program is the Wholesome Wave Foundation, of which Schumacher is chairman. The foundation gave seed money to 10 markets in four states in 2008 and another 55 markets in 10 states in 2009. This year it will support over 100 markets in 20 states.
Across the country other foundations as well as city and state governments are following the foundation’s lead. Even the federal government is helping out with grants. USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Services gave Massachusetts $15,000 for double vouchers and provided California with $500,000 to promote improved access for low-income residents, including double vouchers.
The program is so new that it is difficult to track how many additional markets with some form of double vouchers exist. Besides the markets funded by Wholesome Wave, some markets in New York, Maine, Ohio, Colorado, and Oregon have found ways to offer such incentives.
In addition to Crossroads, a few other Washington-area markets are offering double vouchers—the Silver Spring market in Maryland, the Spotsylvania County market in Virginia, and both the H Street NE market and the Vermont Avenue (White House) market in the district.
A Win-Win Situation
For areas where there is not enough business for a farmers market, such as inner cities, Wholesome Wave has come up with an innovative way to deliver fruits and vegetables. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, a mobile veggie van brings local produce sold at half price to four inner-city neighborhoods. The mobile unit has been doing $3,000 in sales in a four-hour period. The produce doesn’t always look perfect because it isn’t graded, it isn’t waxed, and it doesn’t come in a box—but it’s fresh.
Wholesome Wave’s Schumacher says if more people on food stamps and the WIC program are encouraged to buy at farmers markets, they will eat healthier food while small farmers can make more money. “If 1 percent of the money in the national food stamp program is spent at farmers markets and 15 percent of the new WIC monthly vouchers are spent at farmers markets, by the end of two or three years that would mean $150 to $200 million for small farmers,” he said. “ I think that’s an achievable vision.”Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959, and at one time or other, she worked for the The Washington Post and the late, lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.
SNAP Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Renamed in late 2008, this federal program was previously known as the Food Stamp Program. The stamps have been replaced with an electronic card that resembles a debit card.
EBT Electronic Benefit Transfer
SNAP clients access their benefits using the EBT system instead of receiving a cash payment or stamps. When purchasing food, they swipe a card with a metallic strip and enter a personal identification number into a point-of-sale machine, just as customers do when using credit or debit cards. The machine that reads the cards requires electricity and an Internet connection.
WIC Women, Infants & Children
This federal program is designed to get healthful food to low-income women and children at risk of not receiving proper nutrition. Recipients are pregnant women and recent mothers (up to six months after birth), infants, and children up to the age of five. Benefits, which vary according to the age of the children and the mother’s condition, allow recipients to buy items such as milk, produce, dairy products, and peanut butter.
Because EBT systems are expensive and because electricity and phone lines are not readily available at most farmers market sites, most markets have only one point-of-sale machine. To make this work, the market will issue a scrip, or an alternative currency. The SNAP client swipes his or her card and receives scrip for the amount desired or, if the market is doubling benefits, scrip worth twice that amount. Clients then buy produce from market vendors with scrip, although they do not receive change in return. Market organizers later exchange vendors’ scrip for cash.