January 22

Fresh push for using EBT cards at Maine's farmers’ markets

The electronic payments can help low-income Mainers buy fresh, locally grown produce, advocates say.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The statewide organization for Maine’s farmers’ markets hopes that this year it will be able to double the number of markets that accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards from low-income Mainers who use them to put food on their tables.

click image to enlarge

Phooto courtesy of Cultivating Community: Mohamed Abukar, a Somali immigrant who lives in Lewiston, was one of the first growers sponsored by Cultivating Community to accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps.

The push to make it easier for Mainers who get federal aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to get healthier, locally grown food has had considerable success in recent years.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of farmers’ markets in Maine that accepted Electronic Benefit Transfer cards went from two to 27, almost 20 percent of the markets in the state.

Members of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets could conceivably expand EBT acceptance this year to about 50 of the state’s 139 markets, said Colleen Hanlon Smith, the organization’s director.

She said a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs – a program announced this month, called marketlink.org – could help the federation reach that goal by helping vendors get the technology they need to swipe EBT cards at their stands.

Each farmers’ market in Maine that accepts the cards now has a designated staffer handle them through a wireless terminal that costs $500 to $1,000 for the market to buy. The staffer swipes the cards, gives out tokens in exchange and processes payments to vendors at the end of the market.

It’s a layer of bureaucracy that complicates the process, but vendors can sell to food stamp recipients without bearing the whole cost of the technology.

The marketlink.org program has $4 million in smart-technology grants to give out between now and September, and the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets will encourage its members, who will hold their annual convention Sunday in Hallowell, to apply for them. The grants could pay for devices, like iPads or smartphones, equipped to handle sales.

The EBT issue is one of a half-dozen the group will focus on at its meeting, the sixth annual convention but the first officially run by the federation. In the past, the Down East Business Alliance organized the convention.

Also on the agenda will be advice on what to drive to market – from trucks to minivans – a look at Brunswick’s ongoing effort to create a year-round, permanent home for its farmers’ market in two scenic railway barns, and a seminar on navigating the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t have statistics to refer to,” said Hanlon Smith, “but there is an overwhelming number of people in the farm community who don’t have (health) insurance for themselves or their employees, and this an opportunity for them to learn more.”

The seminar on EBT cards will be led by Mike Gold of the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farm Viability Program. He cited the EBT program as a win-win for the state so far but said he worries about how federal cuts to food stamps will affect farmers’ markets.

The win-win includes incentive programs, such as 2-for-1 deals and bonus dollars, that have encouraged Mainers to use their food stamp benefits at farmers’ markets, widening the customer base for markets. Maine has 251,000 food stamp recipients, about 19 percent of the population.

And instead of shopping in chain stores, the needy have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables from Maine, which provides a public health benefit.

In November, the first in a series of what could be enormous cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program began nationwide with a $5 billion reduction in benefits to be paid out in fiscal year 2014.

Gold said, “Folks surely have less purchasing power because of the SNAP cuts.”

The maximum that a four-person family can receive each month fell by $36, from $668 to $632. In Maine, the average monthly benefit for a family of four is $351.

Part of the challenge for farmers’ markets will be preparing for more cuts, which are inevitable.

The cuts in November were caused by the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which had increased the benefits.

Congress is expected to make about $9 billion in cuts to food stamps over 10 years when it passes a new farm bill. That represents a compromise of sorts: The Democratic-led Senate had approved $4 billion in cuts while the Republican-led House had passed $40 billion in cuts.

Another issue for farmers’ markets is raising awareness. Some SNAP recipients still don’t know about the option to use their cards at farmers’ markets.

Gold hopes that what comes out of the convention will help give shape to a more strategic approach to expanding the EBT program, although “in some markets it may not make sense to go through the work of making that happen.”

That $4 million in grants through marketlink.org will be distributed nationwide, and can’t possibly cover every farmers’ market vendor who needs a wireless terminal.

“If you are only doing $500 in SNAP sales at your farmers’ market, is it worth all that work? It may not be,” Gold said. “In your first year, that may be OK, but it has to be able to pay off.”

The convention will be held from 7:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Maple Hill Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. More information is online at www.mainefarmersmarkets.org.

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