More Farmers Getting Equipped to Accept State, Federal Food-Benefit Payments at Farmers' Markets
April 3, 2015
Nearly $700 million of federal food-purchasing SNAP bene-fits was spent last year in Connecticut alone.
But only a tiny fraction of that – about $145,000 – went into the pockets of producers who sell at farmers’ markets.
Another $862,000 was spent at farmers’ markets through a state program that supplies vouchers to lower-income mothers and seniors.
How farmers can access these pools of potential income was the purpose of two meetings held over the last week in Haddam and Derby that were designed to help farmers get authorized to accept payments from both programs.
“These programs are great ways for farmers to grow their business, for farmers’ markets to increase their customer base, and for low-income households to be able to buy fresh, healthy Connecticut Grown products,” state agriculture Com-missioner Steven K. Reviczky said.
The SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, allows clients to purchase items at farmers’ markets with their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.
Farmers attending the meetings in Haddam last Tuesday and today in Derby learned how they can get a mobile de-vice, a card reader and other equipment and software through a federal USDA program that picks up part of the cost.
The $8 million program enables a farmer to get an iPhone5 or an iPad Mini equipped with a card reader and a software app that facilitates EBT transactions, as well as regular credit and debit cards.
The cost is $340 for 3-year contract through a non-profit company called MarketLink that is running the program.
Details of the program were explained by Don Wambles, an Alabama farmer and Director of that state’s Farmers’ Market Authority who is working with MarketLink.
Wambles told the group of about 35 farmers in Haddam last week that only 27% of all sales across the country are made with cash.
So his most important message was delivered in a single word.
“Plastic,” he said emphatically. “If you can’t accept plastic, where does that leave you? We’ve had a lot of farmers tell us they increased their sales by thirty to forty percent through this program.”
There is a transaction fee of 15-cents for each SNAP sale. Regular credit and debit card transactions carry the same fee, plus a 1.79% surcharge.
Beside the mobile device, those who sign up are given ac-cess to the Mobile Market app that processes the transac-tions, as well as a receipt printer, an online-pay account and other services. Those who want to use their own mobile de-vice can get a similar package for no charge.
“We’re trying to sign up as many farms or direct farmers’ markets as possible,” said Kevin Sawyer of the USDA Food & Nutrition Service in Boston.
On the state level, the SNAP program is administered by the Dept. of Social Services (DSS).
DSS’s Bill Seedman told the producers in Haddam that all 900 DSS counselors are trained to inform clients about the program, which is also promoted in the 12 DSS offices across the state through posters and a video that plays in the waiting area.
The DSS website also has information and links to farmers’ markets that accept SNAP.
“It’s good for the farmers, it’s good for the farmers’ market and it’s clearly good for the recipient,” Seedman said. “Nutrition is a great way to save money down the road on health care costs if we can encourage healthy eating now.”
Some markets offer to match the full amount spent by the SNAP customer, doubling their buying power and increasing the amount of product sold by growers.
“The markets that have the incentive seem to do better than those that don’t,” Seedman said.
Part of the challenge in signing up farmers for the program is the misconception that SNAP clients are concentrated only in urban areas.
“Every town in Connecticut has SNAP customers,” Seedman said. Rick Macsuga, a marketing representative with the state Dept. of Agriculture, handles programs that supply lower income mothers with children and seniors with vouchers that can be redeemed at farmers’ markets.
Last year, he said, $862,000 worth of the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers were used at Connecticut farmers’ markets. About half the funding is provided by the federal government, and the state supplies the other half.
“There is no state that even comes close to putting up that kind of money for a program like this,” Macsuga told the Haddam group. “It’s pretty amazing considering we are a relatively small agricultural state.”
The state vouchers can be used to buy fruit, vegetables, freshcut herbs and honey.
Macsuga also handed out a list of farmers’ markets that are looking for vendors for the upcoming season, which is also available on the department’s website: CTGrown.gov.
One of the growers who signed up for the MarketLink package in Haddam was Gilbert Coriano of Meriden, who last year began growing vegetables like bok choy and herbs like cilantro in his 1- acre suburban backyard aimed at the Latino and Asian community in the area.
He believes being able to accept payments through both the federal and state programs will be key to expanding his business. “Last year we sold everything we grew and this year we’re going to triple it,” he said. “This is going to help us a lot.”