EBT and markets: One size does not fit all

A new post from Cathy Curmudgeonly about the Los Angeles opinion scolding markets that don’t offer EBT yet: THIS is the kind of editorial I have long worried about on EBT and markets. It is a piece that ignores many facts and offers a one-sized-fits-all “solution” that is neither. And tells that to a sector that innovated this acceptance of EBT almost on their own, found private partners to fund the existing pilots while all the while absorbing the added time to figure out the first round of this stuff with great enthusiasm. To now be told that we haven’t done enough is almost too much to hear and to remain polite while responding, but I’ll do my best…(And yes, I get that this is one of those backhanded compliments to those markets that are pioneers, applauding their leadership. Backhanded indeed..)
Let me say that I also look forward to the day that all markets can accept every type of currency and offer programs that encourage more healthy food consumption produced by one’s neighbors. I not only encourage it, I actively work towards that day, but the present is far from that moment. I know that because I have worked with hundreds of markets over the last 10 years on this stuff and have learned from seeing their pilots and hearing the feedback received.

The idea that the costs are negligible is mostly incorrect and not really the only issue: First, many markets operate on less than a shoestring for many reasons and have been able to do so because of the simple management structure they adopted to bring producers and eaters together and to use whatever money they raise through stall fees etc towards marketing and offering amenities.
Others have found a way to also keep it pretty simple but to offer some regular pay to a person who is usually working on less hours than they would get at their local Starbucks and maybe even less of an hourly wage, but still passionate about what they do and happily living with roommates and using a bike or public transportation so they can continue to work at a market.
Others (a very small number) have sustained funding and a professional full-time staff. It is the last group that introduced the wireless machines and tokens to the market world back in 2003/2004. That system works fairly well for that type of market, but almost all other market types are still struggling to cover the costs not covered by their state program (and there are costs not covered, no matter how generous it is), or struggling to create a professional reimbursement system that doesn’t endanger their vendors cash flow or add to their own liability as an organization. Really important to mention again that the costs go far beyond the machine and wireless fees. Far beyond those.

 

To address that point made that an EBT dollar is the same as a regular dollar, it may be best explained as it has been to me by many vendors who actually like the added system:
when the system means waiting weeks for a check and then time to away from the farm to go cash it, the EBT dollar is not the same as the cash dollar. When the eligible goods for each program differ and require that the vendor stop and explain the rules to that new shopper rather than handling 2-3 shoppers at once with bags and a quick answer, the EBT dollar is not the same as the cash dollar in their estimation. Let me repeat- most vendors at markets welcome the chance to get their goods to more people and willingly go along with markets to test these pilots. Still, these are individual businesses with their own reasons for existing and their own unique levels of competency (cultural and professional) for integrating these programs into their business model. The important thing to state here is these are pilots still and require added time and practice to make sure these systems work for everyone.

Now on to that costs are not the only issue to adding machines at the market: The need for agencies and health systems to understand the very sophisticated approach to encouraging fresh fruits and vegetables among at-risk populations that include benefit program users is a much bigger deal than has been addressed by any government policy as of yet. First, “food as medicine” is not as accepted as we’d all like to think. And even when there is an innovative policy written it doesn’t mean it is used correctly by agency staff or works for all. Time after time I have witnessed markets that added the machine, funded the incentives, hired temporary staff for outreach, readied their vendors and the numbers did not come. Some have done some investigation of what happened and concluded that the agencies responsible for assisting with the program either did not understand the market and so poorly translated the program to their client base, or the information about the program did not work its way to those on the front lines working with the clients. Or, their state leaders have a approach to food that borders on zealotry in supporting commodity products while dismissing “specialty crops projects,” therefore leaving many barriers to growth to remain. And yes, some (many) markets have logistical or other issues within that need to be addressed, but do not have the staff time nor the embedded skills to do so.

This doesn’t even raise some of the other external barriers that markets face like connectivity issues for internet, constant changes in the available technology, parking woes, lack of public transportation, effects of climate change on their seasonal products, production economies of scale, hours and location issues, byzantine rules at every level of government, industrial food co-opting our message without adopting our values, a very different pricing system that offers the best deals on those incredible items at the very height of season with value-added items often at the middle to higher end of the spectrum, which is the opposite of most other food retail… Those issues surely hamper shoppers of every socio-economic strata, but they severely impact the addition of those at the bottom rung of our capitalist system. Those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder are also hampered by those issues reserved mostly for them: working more and often the hours no one else wants, no access to private vehicles or child care, poor health, all of which lead to civic disconnect; in fact, almost every part of their lives discourages their participation in farmers markets and other healthy activities. Yet even with those barriers and perception issues, we have added millions of those shoppers in the last 10 + years and we soldier on, to happily lead the march to good food for all, focused on the day when all markets are connected to every system and can manage them successfully. So don’t lambast us for making sure we do it right and instead, spend that effort now used for tsk-tsking our sector on addressing the other systemic issues still in play. We’d appreciate the help.

 

An example of one such type

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