by Gail March Yerke
Farmers markets can play a unique role in helping their community while also increasing vendor sales by participating in the USDA Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. First introduced in 2013, the EBT program allows markets to scan Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards at farmers markets, bringing the healthy choice of farm fresh foods to low income families. As with grocery store purchases, SNAP benefits are limited to fruits, vegetables, breads, cereal, meat, poultry and fish. Qualifying income levels determine eligibility for the nationally-funded program that is administered by individual states. Utilizing EBT not only helps families with food insecurity, it offers an additional income stream for farmers market vendors.
Markets feature a centralized location with EBT terminals where customers receive tokens in exchange for the dollar amount scanned. Besides the SNAP card, standard issue bank debit and credit cards are accepted. Tokens from debit and credit cards may be spent on anything at the market. Other stand-alone benefit programs such as Women Infants and Children (WIC) and Farmers Market Senior Nutrition Program (FMSNP) issue dollar value coupons for fruits and vegetables and do not go through the terminals.
What success can you expect from the EBT program and what investment is needed to get it started at your market? To begin, the market needs to complete an online SNAP application to acquire a Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) approved number. In that process, a board member or market manager signs on as your market’s authorized member. Card reading equipment, tokens and an accounting system are needed as well. Volunteer training time for running the terminals is also a consideration.
For those who joined the EBT program when it was first introduced in 2015, federal grants helped offset start-up costs. Markets were provided with two terminals for processing and a stipend for the first year’s processing fees. Unfortunately, there are no grant programs available at this time. A customer’s card swipe can cost the market a percentage of the total amount and an additional transaction fee. Funds run through the terminals are electronically transferred into the market’s account and vendors are then reimbursed for tokens received each week.
Wisconsin’s Greenfield Farmers Market was one of the first in the metropolitan Milwaukee area to introduce the EBT program and shared some tips on its success. Darren Rausch, Greenfield health officer and director, said the program has boosted sales each year. The city’s health department is responsible for the Sunday farmers market that sees as many as 3,000 visitors each week. “The program puts us on par with other markets nationally,” he said. “Overall, it has driven more people to our market.”
When the grant window was open, the city applied for and received the training and equipment (which requires a wireless connection). Today it costs the Greenfield market $600 to $1,000 per year to cover their processing fees and related costs. Like other markets, they have community partners that help underwrite those expenses.
“We bought blue and green plastic tokens online,” he said. “We found that they are too close in color and, if we had it to do again, we would pick brighter colors.” One color is for SNAP purchases; the other is for debit and credit card transactions. Tokens are available in graduated sizes in each color with corresponding dollar amounts of $5, $1 and 50 cents. Vendors do not give cash change for the tokens that are not refundable, but they also have no expiration date. “By also offering debit and credit card transactions for tokens, we have eliminated the need for an ATM at the market,” he added. The market has seen increased token purchases each season. Their 50-plus vendors like that they can turn in their tokens at any time and checks are mailed to them within a few days.
Taking a leadership role and forming the Milwaukee Farmers Market Coalition, the Fondy Food Center is a nonprofit agency that serves as a resource for 15 city farmers markets. On Milwaukee’s north side is one of its members, the Fondy Market. Started in 1917, it is the oldest market in southeastern Wisconsin. Serving an area with food insecurity, more SNAP dollars are redeemed there than any other farmers market in the state of Wisconsin. Their successful EBT program facilitates over $135,000 in produce and local food going to low income families each year. Local organizations help sponsor a market match program for SNAP benefits. Promoted on their Facebook page, up to $20 in matching funds is offered on featured Saturdays for SNAP card transactions. That’s a win-win, with more produce for families in need and an additional income stream for vendors.
Offering EBT at your market is an investment – but it’s an investment that can help families with food insecurity and benefit your vendors as well. For more information on the EBT program for your market, contact the USDA at fns.usda.gov/snap/farmer-producer.