By: Derek Helmick, Community Food Project Coordinator
For three years, Florida Organic Growers has provided a booth at various farmers markets throughout Alachua County that provide SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefit transfers.
In that time, the booth’s operational costs have been covered by various municipal grants; however, as municipal budgets tighten and the program matures, it is vital for the funding to continue in order for the booth to remain a part of the area farmers’ markets. Let’s delve into the broader history of the programs involved, the Alachua County project specifically, and provide possible plans for the booth’s future.
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is an aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Originally the Food Stamp program, it was started in the late 1930s as a response to widespread unemployment and massive food surpluses that existed during the height of the depression. Having ended in 1943, the program was reauthorized in 1959 with bipartisan support. During the incoming Kennedy Administration it was made permanent so as to make available “… to all needy families a greater variety and quantity of food out of our agricultural abundance.” [exec.ord. 10914]
In the 53 years since, the program has had regular revisions in step with political, ideological, and technological changes. One such technological change was a move in the late 90s to phase out the old green-and-brown stamps system in favor of an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card to be used like a credit or debit card. This was done to make the system more consistent, more accountable, and less susceptible to fraud. With the move to an electronic payment system however, the retail food market became fragmented; those consumers receiving SNAP benefits were effectively shut out from any part of the market unable to handle electronic transactions. Two such parts of the excluded market are small and medium farmers who sell direct to the consumer.
Directly selling to consumers remains a vital part of many farmers’ income. While most farm output is irrevocably tied up in larger grocery vendor systems, farmers often maintain an amount of excess or specialty crops that would otherwise go unsold. Many farmers elect to take part in regional farmers’ markets as a way to sell those products – often at significant a discount relative to grocery stores. Often, these markets are located close to populations that are underserved by most of the retail food market.
In Alachua County, the farmers’ markets FOG maintains an EBT booth at border regions the USDA has labeled as being without basic access to large grocery stores or similar outlets.
There is a significant investment necessary to starting up and maintaining the ability to accept electronic transactions. In addition, there are even more investments needed to accept SNAP benefits that put it out of reach for most farmers and small vendors. To accept SNAP and electronic transactions on behalf of multiple vendors allows for economies of scale that otherwise couldn’t support the necessary ongoing overhead.
Covering these costs is necessary in order to provide the wealth of health benefits made possible through EBT at farmers markets.
If you would like to support the EBT program at various farmers’ markets, please contact FOG at 352.377.6345. If you have any questions, comments, or would like more information about our work in this area, you are encouraged to contact us at Derek@foginfo.org or call 352.377.6345.