Photo by Chas Redmond/Flickr CC
A recent item in the Boston Globe gave me hope not just for my home city but others around the country whose residents live in "food deserts"--urban areas served only by convenience stores, where fresh produce is almost impossible to come by.
Farmers' markets in cities are very nice, but often in well-off areas, not poor ones. And when they are in poor areas--and pretty much any city or state farmers' market association will work hard to site them there--one simple but crucial piece of machinery has kept people from buying the fresh food they want: a battery-powered wireless card reader that allows food-stamp recipients to use their "electronic benefit transfer" food-stamp cards to buy fruits and vegetables.
When I reported an op-ed piece during the run-up to the last Farm Bill, only Iowa had taken a comprehensive approach to supplying the devices to markets across the state, and Boston had none. That was because the state of Iowa had decided to fund them, and was up to states and cities to pay for the card readers. It still is, and now more states and cities are doing it.
Here's the passage from the Globe piece that caught my eye:
To accommodate low-income neighborhood residents, many of the farmers now take food stamps, as well as senior vouchers and vouchers from the Women, Infants and Children program, thanks to the city's donation of electronic bank transfer machines that allow shoppers to swipe their food stamp debit cards at the market.
Judith Kurland, chief of staff to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the mayor has long pressed for healthy alternatives and has pushed to have more supermarkets and smaller grocers move into the neighborhoods.
By coincidence, our crack Food Channel producer Eleanor Barkhorn had been doing a bit of research on her own about which states had found ways to let food-stamp, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients, shop at farmers' markets, based on her experiences teaching in Mississippi:
After I saw the "food" my students (the vast majority of whom received some sort of federal food assistance) ate, it was impossible not to have an interest in finding out how they could have access to fresh vegetables, fruits, etc., instead of the Flaming Hot Cheetos and other processed foods that made up so much of their diets.
Unfortunately, the Delta grows very little real food--most of its farmland is dedicated to cotton and industrial corn and soybeans for animal feed--so even if MS did have a state-funded system to equip farmers' markets with EBT machines, it wouldn't help much for people who live in the region.
One good step at a time. Real food grown on sanely scaled farms owned by sanely financed families and farmers in the bye and bye. Wireless card readers in food-desert farmers' markets now. Rest of her findings from the USDA website below.
As of the end of FY 2008, 753 Farmers' Markets were authorized to accept SNAP benefits nationwide, a 34 percent increase from FY 2007. While the percentage of redemptions is very little, the amount of funds going to small farmers has increased from about $1 million in 2007 to $2.7 million in 2008. Over 250 Farmers' Markets were operating a scrip or token system nationwide.
Highlights from the state-by-state information section:Arizona: "12 out of Arizona's 53 farmers' markets are currently authorized to accept SNAP benefits. Seven wireless terminals are operating at 12 of these markets."
California: "39 of the State's markets currently use a wireless device (29 of which use scrip) and the remaining 13 markets utilize a wired device and scrip."
Iowa: "Iowa is the only State currently conducting a wireless project for individual farmers through which the State reimburses farmers for fees associated with operating a wireless terminal that can be used at multiple locations."
Maine: "The Lewiston Farmers' Market continues to be the only market using scrip in $2.00 increments and a traditional wired POS terminal. $1,019 in EBT redemptions were reported for the 2008 Farmer Market season."
Massachusetts: "In the 2008 market season, 789 transactions (61% increase from 2007) with $6,962.00 in redemptions (53% increase from 2007) used wireless POS terminals."
Montana: "2009 marks the 3rd and final year of this pilot project to establish machines that accept EBT, or Montana Access SNAP, cards. Five farmers' markets are participating in the pilot project; four of these are in more "urban settings" and one in a rural location. All of these markets, with the exception of one, are using a wireless device that accepts EBT, Debit, and Credit cards. The exception is using a wired machine that only accepts EBT, or SNAP, cards."
New Jersey: "In 2008, the state started a Pilot Program that will provide up to 25 wireless Point of Sale machines to farmers who attend farmers' markets in various locations throughout the state."New Mexico: "Some markets are using integrated wireless POS terminals that can process both SNAP and cash debit transactions while other markets continue to use wooden tokens for SNAP and debit transactions."
Oregon: "Twenty-one Farmers' Markets will utilize a wireless POS terminal."
Pennsylvania: "The Food Trust, located in Philadelphia operates 30 farmers' markets in the Philadelphia area, many of which are in neighborhoods underserved by supermarkets, grocery stores and other fresh food outlets. All of the farmers' markets accept EBT cards."
Rhode Island: "In 2008, Rhode Island had 7 farmer's markets using EBT cards and wireless card machines. This resulted in 131 EBT transactions with $2,039 in farmer's markets sales."Washington: "Three markets use wireless POS technology and two process their transactions using a third-party processor...In 2008, the State legislature passed a bill to assist farmers and farmers' markets obtain wireless POS technology capable of processing both EBT and commercial credit/debit transactions. The EBT program will provide funds to the Washington State Farmers' Market Association (WSFMA) to purchase wireless POS devices."