Does your farmers market accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit cards? If not, you may be missing out on a program that offers both a significant additional income stream for your vendors and an important service for the most vulnerable members of your community.
According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), there are currently more than 21 million households in the country participating in the program designed to help those with food insecurity.
Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency. Typically accepted at grocery stores, farmers markets are taking steps to secure the equipment and supplies needed for this Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program in order to grow their market and increase sales for vendors.
If you’re wondering what items can be purchased through the SNAP/EBT program at a farmers market, it’s a lot more than just fruits and vegetables. According to the FNS, the approved list also includes dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, breads and cereals, snack foods and non-alcoholic beverages along with seeds or plants that produce food for the household.
SNAP Program Growth
According to the most recent USDA statistics, over 3,100 markets across all 50 states now accept SNAP/EBT cards. That’s just under one third of today’s more than 9,951 farmers markets nationwide, as reported in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory. California leads the way with almost half of their markets in the entire state now offering it. In the Midwest, Indiana offers the program at 179 farmers markets; Michigan has 161. Just under 100 of their individual farmers markets offer SNAP/EBT purchases in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Meg Kilkenny has served as a Healthy Communities Coordinator with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension in Milwaukee County for the past four years. During that time, she has seen firsthand the growth of the farmers market SNAP/EBT program.
“We have seen a great increase in the amount of SNAP sales at farmers markets in Milwaukee County. In general, I would consider that a positive response from customers, in that more SNAP users are spending their benefits at the farmers market to support local farmers and vendors,” she said.
And how have the vendors responded? “Very positive response,” she said. “In general, vendors are excited to find ways to expand their customer base as well as have access to an additional source of income they would have otherwise not been able to access.”
Dolly and Greg Mertens of Wild Flour Bakery would agree. They have sold their artisan breads and sweet treats at farmers markets in southeastern Wisconsin and Illinois for more than 20 years. Dolly said they have welcomed the addition of SNAP benefits at the markets they have attended. “Sales increased about 20%,” she said. “And of course, we saw new customers. It’s a win-win.”
Like any other business expansion, adding the SNAP program to a farmers market requires an investment of both time and money. Besides the application process with the USDA, equipment must be procured and market staff trained in its operation. Communication on how the program works is important to help get vendors on board and help advertise it to customers.
Once the market is approved and set up with its wireless equipment, SNAP/EBT customers scan their cards like credit cards. The dollar amount scanned is then given to the customer in tokens or paper coupons that can be used toward the purchase of approved items. Some markets like the wooden tokens and others prefer the plastic that are available in varied colors for easier identification of different denominations. Vendors accept the tokens from customers and then turn them in to the market manager for reimbursement. Most markets reimburse vendors by check once a month during the season. As in grocery stores, no change is given on SNAP/EBT purchases.
In addition to accepting the SNAP cards, farmers markets can opt to accept credit and debit cards in exchange for tokens with the same equipment. This helps vendors that do not have the capacity to accept credit cards on their own. Similar to brick-and-mortar retail businesses, these credit and debit card purchases are charged an individual transaction fee of 10 to 15 cents and an additional percentage of the purchase amount as well.
When it comes to fees to process SNAP benefits, some third-party processors charge per swipe for a SNAP/EBT card transaction up to 15 cents each. Others absorb EBT transaction fees into their monthly flat rate service fees, so it depends on who is chosen as the market’s merchant service provider.
Help with Start-Up Costs
Direct marketing farmers and farmers markets brand new to the SNAP benefit program can apply for the grant that helps with start-up expenses through MarketLink at marketlink.org. The USDA federal grant program applications are accepted on a rolling basis and provide free SNAP/EBT equipment with processing costs for the benefit program covered for the first year. The cost of tokens can often be covered by sponsorships and/or fundraising.
It will be market season before we know it. Winter is a good time to do some additional research on your own and see if this would be a good fit for your farmers market. If the answer is yes and you qualify for the grant program, you’ll be gaining additional sales for your vendors while providing a service for your community at little cost.
Dolly Mertens was right, it does sound like a “win-win.”
by Gail March Yerke