January 21, 2014
Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) announced MarketLink, a website that provides farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers with a new, streamlined process for becoming authorized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) vendors and information about obtaining the equipment needed to accept SNAP benefits. Up to $4 million in grants for equipment will be available through September 30, 2014 for those who qualify.
As a one-stop-shop, MarketLink provides farmers and markets with information about wireless EBT equipment providers, wireless plans, USDA-approved payment processors and their rates and terms, along with relevant links to become an authorized SNAP retailer and to determine eligibility for free EBT equipment.
A result of a partnership between USDA FNS and the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP), MarketLink is an effort to enhance the participation of farmers and farmers markets in SNAP, which helps prevent hunger for millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families in the U.S. and provides farmers with access to an expanded customer base. USDA states that MarketLink will help ensure that families and individuals in need, “have access to even more fresh fruits and vegetables by upgrading the infrastructure at America’s farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits.”
Farmers markets and SNAP redemption at farmers markets has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Farmers markets have gone from about 5,000 in number in 2008 to over 8,000 as of August 2013. Of the over 8,000 farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, over 4,000 farmers’ markets and direct marketing farmers are authorized to accept SNAP nationwide. Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2013, SNAP redemption rates at farmers markets have nearly doubled, increasing from $11.7 million in 2011 to $20.4 million in 2013. Since 2004, when SNAP benefits shifted a paperless, debit-card style benefit (known as an EBT or Electronic Benefit Transfer card), the value of SNAP redemptions at farmers markets increased by 400 percent.
USDA encourages farmers and markets to check out MarketLink and begin the authorization process right away in order to receive SNAP authorization and wireless equipment in time for the Spring 2014 start of the market season.
Farm Bill Improvements Hopefully Coming Soon
If and when Congress finishes work on a new five-year farm bill, we are expecting additional improvements in this area. As a result in part of NSAC’s work on the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, the new farm bill is expected to include a provision to exempt direct marketing outlets from covering the costs of wireless EBT equipment. In addition, we believe the new farm bill will authorize pilot programs for using smartphone and similar technologies at direct marketing venues. A separate provision is also expected to allow SNAP participants to participate in Community Supported Agriculture ventures (CSAs) that require advance purchase of food . Last but not least, the new farm bill is expected to provide substantial mandatory funding for SNAP incentive programs for the purchase of locally and regionally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and other healthy food retailers.