Federal and state agencies are working to make food stamps a widely accepted payment method at farmers’ markets statewide.
This recent initiative, championed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aims to help Connecticut farmers expand their customer base. Although some farmers and farmers’ markets have accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits since 2005, two meetings were held late last month to expand the number of vendor participants in the program. Between the two events, 21 additional farmers’ markets signed up for the initiative more than doubling the number of markets in the state accepting SNAP benefits in the state.
“Accepting SNAP at farmers markets is a win-win-win situation,” said Kurt Messner, acting regional administrator of the Northeast Regional office for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. “It gives farmers direct access to new customers; gives SNAP recipients access to healthy food; and encourages consumption of locally grown produce.”
The initiative also provides grants for free Electronic Bank Transfer equipment — mechanisms that allow for money to be transferred from one account to another through computer-based systems.
David Dearborn, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said the department — which administers the federally-funded SNAP in Connecticut — currently enrolls over 400,000 individuals in 228,000 households in SNAP.
Prior to the sign-up meetings, only 15 of the 156 Connecticut farmers’ markets and direct marketing farmers listed in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory were authorized to accept SNAP. These 15 included four in New Haven, including the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market and the Downtown Farmers’ Market, which double the value of SNAP dollars used.
Federal and state officials also said the Electronic Bank Transfer system would ease the payment process for customers. According to Marketlink, the vendor that partners with the agencies to supply the EBT equipment, the system will expand these markets’ customer bases because customers will no longer need to worry about running out of cash. The Marketlink website said some individual farmers’ sales have more than doubled when using the EBT system to accept SNAP.
Adam Rabinowitz, a professor in agricultural and resource economics at the University of Connecticut, said access to the markets is still a concern. He said that, for the program to succeed, there needs to be an increased awareness of the initiative so that SNAP customers know they have another option other than normal supermarkets. Likewise, Rabinowitz said that markets in more urban areas currently see greater use of SNAP, while those in locations with fewer public transportation options tend to see less.
“As long as marketing is done correctly, the program has an advantage everywhere,” Rabinowitz said.
Messner noted that the next step of the initiative is to focus on marketing, especially by spreading awareness through both the state and other community partners.
Connecticut farmers and farmers’ markets can also participate in several other programs such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Senior FMNP, which offer low-income women, children and seniors vouchers that can be redeemed at these vendors.
In 2005, the Elm City’s Wooster Square Farmers’ Market became the first market in the state to accept SNAP.