Why Don't More Farmers' Markets Accept Food Stamps?


A farmers' market near Plant City, Florida, that accepts SNAP benefits with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. [Flickr: usdagov]

The number of farmers' markets available to urban consumers has grown rapidly in the last few years, and many cities have strong farmer advocacy programs. Yet the prices at these markets can be higher than at the supermarket, and higher prices raise concerns about the accessibility to fresh food among lower-income populations.

Because of these concerns, there has been a nationwide effort to encourage farmers' markets to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps), as well as the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). In 2010, Congress delegated about $20 million for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, through the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. The FMNP works to expand WIC access among markets and improve education of the benefits of shopping at local markets.

The food stamps program started in 1964. In 2004, the Electronic Benefits Transfer program was established. EBT works like a debit card, and participants can pay for food purchases by simply swiping the card. About 39 million Americans receive SNAP benefits.

As of 2009, about 193,000 retailers take SNAP, yet only 900 of these retailers are farmers' markets, despite the fact that there are more than 5,200 markets nationwide. So why not more? Well, EBT machines are expensive for one. The machines cost about $1,000 to install, and then have continued operating costs as well as labor and training associated with their usage. States often apply for federal funding to cover the costs associated with setting up EBT at markets, but grant programs aren't unlimited and often markets still can't cover the costs.

In response to a need for more SNAP-friendly markets, the USDA released a report entitled "SNAP at Farmers Markets: A How-To Handbook" in June 2010. This report provides exhaustive information for markets looking to incorporate EBT machines into their operations. It describes how to apply for funding, purchase and operate EBT machines, and alert local community members that the market is now accepting SNAP.

Making this information more widely available and concentrated in one document will hopefully lead to more markets increasing accessibility to low-income individuals.

The number of farmers' markets accepting SNAP continues to grow. Indeed, the state of Virginia recently announced efforts to expand the number of markets accepting SNAP. Many cities already have near-universal acceptance, but there is marked room for improvement.

As media and educators continue stressing the importance of eating fresh, local food, it could be only a matter of time before SNAP can be used interchangeably at supermarkets and farm stands. Yet communities must continue to alert residents to the fact that SNAP is being accepted at farmers markets, as well as educate residents on the value of buying produce fresh off the farm. A first step towards achieve an equitable food system for all Americans is ensuring universal accessibility to the tastiest food grocery dollars can buy.