In the News: SNAP & Farmers Markets
Forty-one farmers markets in Vermont currently accept Three Squares benefits, the Vermont version of SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance). It's a way to help low income Vermonters purchase more healthy, local food, and capture some of the $9 million spent monthly through SNAP in Vermont for our farmers. Additional programs, such as Vermont’s Crop Cash, often match these benefits to increase the food that can be purchased at the markets. NOFA-VT has a guide to how this all works at their website.
EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards are the vehicles for utilizing these Three Square / SNAP benefits at retail stores. The advent of low cost mobile payment processing apps, like Square, has made using credit and debit cards at Farmers’ Markets much more common than five years ago. But EBT isn’t as simple as swiping your card through a Square reader (for one thing, Square doesn’t accept EBT - and in a statement noted they have no prospects of doing so any time soon). Instead, there are national groups set up to facilitate farmers’ markets’ access to equipment and software for running these processes. Until recently, the Farmers’ Market Coalition held this contract with USDA, and they have a useful explanation on their site of how EBT at Farmers’ Markets works for those who want more details.
Earlier this spring, the USDA switched their contract from Farmers’ Market Coalition to Financial Transaction Management. Financial Transaction Management (FTM) additionally changed contracts with specific vendors of equipment and software. Novo Dia, a major processing software provider, announced it was going out of business largely as a result of being dropped by FTM. Until that point, Novo Dia handled EBT at 40% of the nation’s farmers’ markets and there’s no clear alternative that those markets can adopt quickly.
Other news outlets have reported on this chain of events as being. . . curious. There was little sign of FTM even existing until it got this whole deal with USDA. What’s up? We don’t know but the Washington Post (which provides a nice overview of the obstacles in bringing EBT to farmers’ markets), Huffington Post, and Modern Farmer all have something to say about it. The USDA has its own statement that says nothing is amiss. The Farmers Market Coalition has a statement that is diplomatic.
With this disarray, farmers markets across the U.S. were set to lose their ability to process SNAP at the end of July. An 11th hour intervention by the nonprofit National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs will keep Novo Dia operating for another 30 days. That buys time at the height of the season, but doesn’t solve the underlying issue.
The impact of these changes will be felt in Vermont. According to the VT Agency of Agriculture, five farmers markets and two individual farms would be directly affected. Over $31,000 in SNAP benefits and Crop Cash were redeemed at the markets in 2018, with an average weekly redemption of $1,003.
Beyond the individual numbers, this national string of events strikes at a central tenant of how Vermont wants its farmers markets to be perceived - as a place for everyone to find good, local food. NOFA-VT is in the middle of a major USDA-funded farmers market promotion campaign intended to help Vermonters understand their local, healthy food options. Local Banquet writer Kate Spring recently contributed this piece on the importance of direct markets to NOFA-VT - it's an experience meant to be available to all members of our communities, but one that's still vulnerable to bureaucratic failures and the vagaries of government contracting.
Update from August 3, 2018: New York State reached a deal with Novo Dia that will keep the company in operation through the end of the NY growing season, which in turn keeps services available in all places using their platform. You can read more in Modern Farmer. Update on August 20, 2018 - additional analysis from New Food Economy on what happens after the growing season ends (editorial comment: anyone who writes 'why don't states fund their own programs, without the federal government, just like California does' should be forced to live at least 5 years in a petite sized state).