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Farmers Markets And SNAP: Vital Service To Benefit Recipients In Question

Jul 26, 2018

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, can help people in urban centers overcome barriers to fresh foods that are affordable.

That’s because in recent years, SNAP participants have been able to use their electronic benefits transfer cards at some local farmers markets.

However, uncertainty around the SNAP program means that relationship could slip away.

One in eight Connecticut residents are enrolled in the SNAP program.

“A majority of our customer base are SNAP users,” said Jocelyn Cerda, the manager of the Farmers Market at Billings Forge in Hartford.

Nikki Knowles represents one of the 177,523 people in Connecticut using SNAP benefits. She not only makes SNAP card payments at the farmers market, but she also works at one to help administer the payments.

“The minimum wage in Connecticut is not good enough to actually have a good living if you’re not able to receive any kind of assistance from the state,” Knowles said. “So, even if you do have a job, I don’t think that means that you should not be able to eat well, or actually have healthy food to eat, or you should just be subject to McDonald’s or Burger King which is not really healthy for you or your kids.”

When you shop at Hartford’s five major farmers market and spend $20 or less on your SNAP card, you get to double what you put in. For someone like Knowles, shopping at a place that will essentially double your money makes all the difference.

“That’s a lot for people if you have more than one kid in the house because it doubles,” Knowles said. “Even though that some of the local stuff might seem like it cost more, if you’re using your fresh SNAP -- or your EBT card -- it’s basically like you’re paying half-price.”

But that’s a benefit that’s under threat for about 1,700 farmers markets elsewhere in the country. While Hartford won’t be affected, many other markets are losing their ability to accept the SNAP debit card, because a tech company called Novo Dia lost the federal contract to provide the card processing service.

The card processing fiasco is just the latest problem facing the SNAP community. It follows an unsuccessful proposal from President Donald Trump earlier this year to cut the program by $200 billion. And the United States House of Representatives may soon propose changes to the farm bill that could put more stringent work requirements on SNAP users.

Cerda, the manager who works the Farmers Market at Billings Forge, said the number of SNAP beneficiaries that use the card at her market has tripled since 2014.

“Imagine what that would look like if these SNAP users can’t attend the market,” Cerda said. “It affects those families, it also affects the farmer families, and it affects the farmers market.”

The Frog Hollow Farmers Market on Laurel Street in Hartford.
Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

Lorenza Christian Jr., a co-manager at the Frog Hollow market on Laurel Street, said his market has only processed one or two SNAP sales in the past two years it’s been open. According to Christian Jr., that’s likely because the market is new and hasn’t had a ton of overall sales. Still, the SNAP market is a coveted one for Christian Jr.

“A lot of people spend a lot of money in grocery stores buying food from out of state, out of country even with SNAP benefit, and if we can capture those SNAP benefits, we can effectively capture some of that money right in here in our own city, state and government,” Christian Jr. said.

Knowles confirmed that sentiment. She’d rather shop at a farmers market than local grocery stores.

“The stuff that you find in those big grocery stores is shipped all over the country and actually exported from out of the country so you don’t really know exactly what you’re actually putting in your body,” Knowles said. “You don’t know what chemicals are put on it. You don’t know the shelf life. You don’t when it’s been picked, or really, where it’s been picked from.”

Last week, the USDA announced that a coalition of nonprofits will step in to provide electronic benefits transfer services in Novo Dia’s wake, but only until the end of August. Meanwhile the final version of the farm bill -- the one that may tighten work requirements -- is far from certain.