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How Effective Are SNAP Doubling Programs at Farmers' Markets?

Marie Crise is able to use her SNAP benefits to purchase fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables at the Abingdon Farmers Market in Abingdon, Va. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl)

By Nina Keehan

Food stamps, you might be surprised to learn, were originally intended to be used to buy fresh produce and other staples at farm stands.  It was only after the 1984 introduction of the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, which gave participants debit cards to make purchases, that food stamps were shunned at farmers' markets. Vendors could not afford the technology necessary to authorize payments.

Luckily, over the past few years, farmers' markets have returned to the days when food stamps were readily accepted, and some even offer a special benefit for those making purchases with SNAP (formerly food stamps) dollars.

Some farmers' markets have started to double SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, meaning if you buy $10 worth of produce at a participating farmers' market, you get another $10 free! This sort of incentive is vitally important, since fresh fruits, vegetables, and local products are so much more expensive than the processed foods sold at convenience and grocery stores.

Last month, I visited a Washington, D.C., FreshFarm Market to see if doubling programs are effective. The Penn Quarter farmers' market has been doubling benefits through its Matching Dollars Program since 2009--it's one of several FreshFarm markets that doubles benefits up to $15.

While not all of the markets can afford to double benefits, FreshFarm decides which ones will support the incentive based on neighborhood data and past response to the program.

Bernie Prince, co-executive director and founder of FreshFarm Markets, said that offering double benefits for SNAP, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and SFMNP (Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program) coupon holders has drawn a lot of new customers to the market, many of whom become frequent and loyal visitors. Last year, FreshFarm gave over $47,000 in benefits to shoppers.

The Matching Dollars Program is not just beneficial for the customers—the farmers and other vendors at the market are seeing increased sales without having to pay for the transaction technology themselves. FreshFarm handles all SNAP transactions from a table at the market and charges a $2 fee for shoppers using a credit card--that money is immediately folded back into the Matching Dollars Program, which allows the $15 benefit to be self-sustaining.

Programs that double benefits often require a lot of outreach because many communities don’t realize the programs exist, so FreshFarm goes directly to the source, by promoting in benefit agencies and senior centers. It is also expanding to reach more people: In 2013, FreshFarm will make its Matching Dollars Program available at several additional D.C.-area markets.

Doubling programs have an enthusiastic, but limited market following. While more than 1,150 farmers' markets accept EBT cards, only a fraction of them do any form of SNAP matching. But data from Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP) has indicated it is one of the most effective ways to draw in SNAP customers, with participating farmers indicating a “300 percent increase in SNAP and WIC use at farmers markets with the introduction of double voucher incentive programs.”

Hopefully, as successful programs such as FreshFarm and DVCP continue to thrive, more farmers' markets will participate and help make fresh fruits and vegetables a staple, once again, for low-income shoppers.

Nina Keehan, a media relations intern at Bread for the World, is a senior magazine journalism and public health dual major at Syracuse University.

 

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