The amount reached $1.4 million in May and continued to trend upward over the summer, reaching $1.75 million in September, the USDA said. That is a 50 percent increase over last year, according to anti-hunger advocates.
In September 2019, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service debuted a “digital wallet” for farmers markets, free for one year. Since many farmers markets operate only in the warmer months, this took effect this spring.
At the same time, the USDA expanded funding for SNAP and added Pandemic EBT benefits, a debit-card program for children who would ordinarily qualify for free and reduced-price school meals, enabling low-income American households to combine the benefits. Additional regional grants doubled recipients’ fruit and vegetable benefits at many farmers markets.
About 1,500 farmers and markets in 44 states are now processing transactions via the TotilPay Go app. Farmers and markets attach a card reader to a smartphone, enabling the phone to function as a point-of-sale device. SNAP customers swipe their EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card and enter their PIN to complete purchases, using the same app to track food benefits.
It still represents only a tiny fraction of food purchases made using SNAP benefits. In 2020, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has provided $75 billion in SNAP benefits, including the entire fiscal 2020 appropriation for benefits, the $15.5 billion provided for SNAP in the Cares Act coronavirus-relief legislation, and approximately $4 billion in SNAP reserves, according to FNS data.
A performance artist in Baltimore, Lynn Hunter, 25, lost work because of the pandemic and applied for SNAP benefits. She has been visiting the Druid Hill Farmers Market, which has a grant to match people’s SNAP benefits. She spends around $80, buying most of her fresh fruit and vegetables there, relying on the grocery store only for staple items.
“When I first started using SNAP I had basically zero income and I really needed money for food. There is a stigma, at least in my family, that taking government aid is looked down upon,” she said. “I was reading up on EBT in general and I saw on a Reddit forum that you could use your benefits online and at farmers markets. I was worried that people at the market would look at me funny, and I didn’t understand that the farmers were still getting the same money they ordinarily get.”
“It should be a right for everyone to have access to good food,” she said. “Even better whenever we can contribute to our local community. I’m always for helping small businesses.”
Market managers and anti-hunger organizations have been trying to figure out how to connect SNAP recipients with farmers markets for more than a decade, said Amy Crone, project manager for MarketLink, which connects farmers and markets with the equipment for accepting SNAP and EBT. A shift from a paper voucher system to debit-card benefits resulted in a huge decrease in benefit use at markets. While grocery stores were provided with electronic card readers, vendors at farmers markets were expected to pay for their own readers. Early card readers were on iPads, cumbersome and expensive.
Total SNAP redemption using the MarketLink app was $8.9 million last year, Crone said. She said it could reach $12 million this year.
Cottin’s Hardware in Lawrence, Kan., holds a year-round farmers market adjacent to the hardware store. The number of vendors has been cut in half to accommodate social distancing, and live music and food trucks “came to a screeching halt,” Linda Cottin said, but there’s been an uptick in SNAP usage.
“We’ve seen some new customers,” she said. “They have said an outdoor market is a safer place to shop than a grocery store, and it could also be that people have more time because they are working at home. It ran from 4 to 6 p.m., so for people working at the office that was hard for them.” SNAP and Pandemic EBT recipients come into the hardware store, run their card and receive tokens to spend with the market vendors — and a regional grant doubles their money.
Many small farmers did not qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans, because small farms tend to have few employees. Nor did they get the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, because the program largely leaves out those who rely on direct-to-consumer sales or wholesale accounts. The uptick in SNAP use provides a welcome new revenue stream for many farmers.
Kim and Chad Spangler grow and sell sweet corn, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, summer and winter squash, melons and some berries at a farm stand in Yorktown, Ind. They have six or seven families regularly using their food assistance benefits but have also seen a small uptick in newcomers.
Ryan and Alycia Salvas of Radical Roots Farm in Canterbury, Conn., have seen a more dramatic change. They raise American mulefoot hogs, shipping their pork across the country and selling it right off the farm. They have a subscription service — like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce program — for their pork: 10 pounds is a half-share for $100; a full share, a 20-pound box, is $180. Having a SNAP and Pandemic EBT card reader has transformed their business.
“It’s dramatically increased our sales over the past year,” Alycia said. “It went from 10 people over last winter to 56 customers” using SNAP.
“Sales have quadrupled in the past six months,” Ryan added. “With supermarkets being so low on inventory and with price gouging, we’ve seen customers who have never gone to the market.”
Online ordering options, Ryan said, has removed one more barrier.
“People on food stamps would come to the market and be ashamed,” Ryan said. “This removes the whole stigma behind it.”
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