Using EBT

 

by Janelle Harris

The first time I used food stamps, I cried. It was a predawn Saturday morning and I had purposely gone to the grocery store early to avoid pulling out the EBT card in the sight lines of people I worried would judge me. I felt like an imposter among self-paying customers.

 

Tension and discouragement hang dense in the air as soon as you walk into the human resources office. You’re at the mercy of a system powered by a comedy of inefficiencies. Lines form early. Waits are long. Paperwork disappears. Your life is ultimately laid bare in document form, fanned out in front of the person whose job it is to decide whether you’re optimally managing the finances of your household and whether you and your people deserve help from the government. It’s a reductive and demeaning process. The negative energy there makes even tiny babies cry.

 

…Poverty is crazy-making. It changes you, snatches your good common sense, and consumes your thoughts. You wake up thinking about being poor, spend your days plotting how not to be poor, and go to bed worrying about the consequences of being poor. You’re high-strung, easily provoked, always looking for answers. You snap on your children. You snap on your boos and baes. You snap on God. There are moments — long, inward-facing moments — when no scripture, no motivational meme, no inspirational quote can quell the urgency of not having enough.

 

 

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SNAP Update:  “Twinkies can no longer be considered bread”

      “I’m disappointed that the rules don’t go as far as what was proposed early this year,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a nutrition advocacy group. “USDA has missed an opportunity to increase the availability of and access to healthier foods for low-income Americans.”

The earlier proposals also recommended leaving food with multiple ingredients like frozen pizza or canned soup off the staple list. The outcome is a win for the makers of such products, like General Mills Inc. and Campbell Soup Co., which feared they would lose shelf space as retailers added new items to meet the requirements.

But retailers still criticized the new guidelines as too restrictive. Stores must now stock seven varieties of staples in each food category: meat, bread, dairy, and fruits and vegetables….

…More changes to the food-stamp program may lie ahead. The new rules were published a day after the House Committee on Agriculture released a report* calling for major changes to the program, which Republicans on the committee say discourages recipients from finding better-paid work.

Source: Regulators Tweak SNAP Rules for Grocers – WSJ

*Some of the findings from the 2016 Committee on Agriculture Report “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP” are below.

    • Program participation nearly doubled (up 81 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2013) as a result of the recent recession. In an average month in FY 2007, 26.3 million people (or about 9 percent of the U.S. population) were enrolled in SNAP. That increased to 47.6 million people (or about 15 percent of the U.S. population) in FY 2013, owing to the fact that the economy was slow to recover and many families remained reliant on SNAP. Even now, with a 4.6 percent unemployment rate (compared to a 9.6 percent unemployment rate for 2010), there were still 43.4 million SNAP participants as of July 2016.
    • SNAP is now a catchall for individuals and families who receive no or lower benefits from other welfare programs, largely because the eligibility criteria in SNAP are relatively more relaxed. As a result, the net effect has been to increase SNAP enrollment. For example, in the welfare reforms of 1996, the cash welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was converted into a block grant known as TANF, which has rather rigorous work and activity requirements and includes a time limit. Another program available to those who are laid off from work is Unemployment Insurance (UI). These benefits require individuals to have a work history and to be fired through no fault of their own to be eligible for assistance. UI benefits are also time-limited, typically lasting six months. A third program, Federal disability benefits, requires individuals to prove they are unable to work. For many families who have not collected SNAP in the past, SNAP is now a default option for filling in the gaps.
    • USDA data shows that spending on SNAP remains three times what it was prior to the recession ($23.09 billion pre-recession average compared to $73.99 billion post-recession in FY 2015). However, SNAP spending is now projected to be significantly lower than it was estimated at passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.
    • For FY 2017, the maximum monthly benefit in the 48 contiguous states and DC is $194 for a one-person household, $357 for a two-person household, and $649 for a four-person household.17 In determining a household’s benefit, the net monthly income of the household is multiplied by 30 percent (because SNAP households are expected to spend 30 percent of their income on food), and the result is subtracted from the maximum benefit to determine the household’s benefit.
    • Seniors have the lowest rates of SNAP participation among eligible households of any demographic. While the low participation rate has a variety of causes, a prominent explanation is the stigma associated with SNAP and welfare in general. Many factors contribute to a lack of access to food among seniors, including a lack of a substantial income, the gap between Medicaid and the cost of living, limited income with specialized diets, and mental and physical illnesses.  The issues facing these populations must be viewed holistically, with SNAP as one piece of a larger solution to solving hunger for seniors.


According to research by the AARP Foundation—a charitable affiliate of AARP—over 17 percent of adults over the age of 40 are food-insecure. Among age cohorts over age 50, food insecurity was worse for the 50-59 age group, with over 10 percent experiencing either low or very low food security. Among the 60-69 age cohort, over 9 percent experienced similar levels of food insecurity, and over 6 percent among the 70+ population.

• The operation of the program is at the discretion of each state. For instance, in California, SNAP is a county-run program. In Texas, SNAP is administered by the state… Dr. Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute cited a specific example in New York City where SNAP, WIC, school food programs, and child and adult care programs are all administered by different agencies and the result is that each agency must determine eligibility and administer benefits separately.

K. Michael Conaway, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. Hearing of the House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture. Past, Present, and Future of SNAP. February 25, 2015. Washington, D.C.  Find report here

From CNN this week:

The number of people seeking emergency food assistance increased by an average of 2% in 2016, the United States Conference of Mayors said in its annual report Wednesday.

The majority, or 63%, of those seeking assistance were families, down from 67% a year ago, the survey found. However, the proportion of people who were employed and in need of food assistance rose sharply — increasing to 51% from 42%.

 

CNN Money report

 

SNAP videos

Simple, clear and appealing videos on using benefits at markets that can be shared with community centers, sent to targeted social media users and can be used as a banner on news sites too. Bravo Urbana and Fond du Lac!

More about the market

And from Fond du Lac Wisconsin:

More on this market

Interested in Free SNAP EBT Equipment?

If you are a farmers market or a direct marketing farmer interested in offering card processing but currently lack EBT equipment, check out Farmers Market Coalition’s link below to get information about two programs that offer free equipment and cover many of the fees for a period. The site is easy to navigate to see if your market or business can begin EBT processing. FMC also supplies some good FAQs here for anyone searching for more information on these systems.

Source: Interested in Free SNAP EBT Equipment?

Mississippi: the last stop of the spring season

The thing about being a market consultant is it has a very specific schedule each year: the spring is packed with calls and invitations to conferences and workshops. Lots of discussion about grant opportunities and best practices.
The summer is spent at at the desk, writing or researching on behalf of those who hire us.
The fall starts to bring more travel, usually more for large-scale (non-market) conferences as well as a scramble for assistance on projects that got sidelined or tangled over the summer.
The winter is when the big ideas are usually discussed, with colleagues asking for an ear or agreeing to read something. Some of those big ideas roll right into spring grant-writing season and the year begins again.
This year my spring travel started in Alabama, then to Oregon and Washington, March in Vermont, two spots in Illinois and this last spring trip was in the Magnolia State, right in my own backyard.
I live part of the time about 40 or so miles from the Mississippi line and of course, as a past manager of a set of markets in the biggest city in the region, I had farmers from Mississippi and from Alabama that came to vend, so I am quite familiar with what is happening there and have some ideas as to what could happen there.
When I was asked to speak again this year by MS Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), I said yes immediately. Partly because I like the folks at MDAC and partly because in order to have a real food system in my place, it must be regionally organized (which means MS too of course) and we are far from that reality. And of course, because as a national market advocate, I need to see and talk to as many markets as I can. Let me say that MDAC does an amazing job supporting every actor in the food system and any criticism I give about the lack of support should not be construed as being directed at MDAC. They do more with less than most other states I know. And that MDAC is a state agency devoted to the many, not the few; market organizers and community food system initiative leaders need their own champions too.

MDAC asked me to talk about EBT outreach and about measuring markets for whatever number of the 70 or so markets listed in the state showed up. I agreed, even though I knew that the EBT outreach was probably a little too forward of what the group needed, based on the answers to the survey we sent out.
The MS markets are a strange and wonderful hybrid-they have no independent state association of markets, which is typical of most the other Southern states.
The state does have an emerging sustainable ag network, thanks to some local people (Daniel Doyle for one) and the Wallace Center which offered early funding to create the entity.
The state has offered both farmers and markets free SNAP-only machines for the last few years, predating the new FNS marketlink.org farmer terminal system. Many of you know that I am not a fan of these systems being handed off to farmers quite yet, so I do view these hybrid systems with a jaundiced eye.
Some of their markets have a closer relationship to Main Street initiatives than many other states’s markets which means that they are included in larger municipal ideas of revitalization, which can be good and bad for a market. The Main Street movement is more viable in rural communities, using its energy on facade or street improvements and some event planning. So what I find among MS managers are great event planners and city/civic leaders, with a genuine interest in assisting their vendors, but with few ideas how to do just that. The newest trend there is for public health partnerships (of course) with funding increasing there tremendously since MS is usually at the lowest rung of most health stats, with Louisiana constantly battling it for last place. Even so, since many of the markets are quite entrepreneurial and “downtown-focused,” these public health partnerships have not yet found their sweet spot.

And since most of these markets are operating with such low capacity, and no one is advocating for them full-time, they have very little data on what they do well and little experience in analyzing how they did something well. EBT and FMNP for instance-what do they want from these programs? How do markets of 5 to 20 vendors build in capacity to offer a robust benefit program system without any resources or support? Interestingly, a workshop with information about market link and on becoming a SNAP retailer was held in a room at the other end of the center for MS farmers at the exact same time as the managers were in this room. I wish this had not been the case for many reasons, but most of all I have not found that creating silos of information within a system very useful.
As we were in the room, we heard about the successful FINI proposals, one of which is substantial and will involve MS markets. There was excitement, but there was also trepidation among the market organizers. Most of them do not run central EBT systems and so have very little contact with their benefit program shoppers and almost no idea where to find these folks or how to get them to come to their markets.
Adding cash incentives is great, but there has to also be money to build the systems at market and state level to change perceptions of local food and to lift the existing barriers or that money will just act as it was pushed through a sieve.
As I stood inside and outside after my talks, I was peppered with questions, most of which showed the lack of support these markets have:
Where do I find these USDA grants?
How do I get FMNP coupons at my market?
What amount should I raise for an incentive and how should I use it?
Who offers funds for staffing a market?
What is market link?
How do I get funds to advertise?

How do I get more local goods to more people as an organizer?
The agency directors (that serve benefit program shoppers) won’t even talk to me about my market- what should I do?

How can I measure my economic impact?

and this round of questions didn’t even bring up the whole set of issues present everywhere- how do get enough farmers and producers doing well enough to keep this system moving forward? How do we do this with other initiatives breathing down our neck, competing for funding and attention?

The number of new faces at this meeting is similar to many of the other states that I visit regularly and is an indication that we have yet to find a way to offer professional jobs as market managers, instead using the typical revolving door of entry-level work that exhausts producers and means that initiatives never fully engage or sustain; markets are full of pilots but few have moved those pilots to replicable programs with funding streams, experienced staff and policy changes arising from those lessons.
The beautiful thing is that the willingness and enthusiasm among these organizers is always high, even with the many closed doors and the lack of support available to them.
So, I finish my spring conference travel right where I started it: with markets feeling the pressures from partners to offer new programs, with internal communities asking for sustainable growth, with organizers managing this work while they are paid not at all or paid a pittance or doing the equivalent of 2-3 peoples workload. But I also finish it having heard loads of great ideas from organizers and with stories of successful pilots from the last few years that will be expanded or tested again.
So let’s hope that this year that we can move the dial a little bit over the summer and fall with a successful market season and then together can start to build the system we need come winter and spring.

Porch at the auditorium for the mkt meeting at the MS Ag and Forestry Museum

Porch at the auditorium for the mkt meeting at the MS Ag and Forestry Museum

View of MS Sustainable Ag Network's Victory Garden demonstration at the MS Ag Museum

View of MS Sustainable Ag Network’s Victory Garden demonstration at the MS Ag Museum

Mo’ Money? No Problem.

IMG_1536

The picture is from my regular weekly, year-round Saturday market, founded in 1996 in the small town of Covington Louisiana, which is only 40 miles north of New Orleans but separated from it by Lake Pontchartrain and its 24 mile-long bridge.

The market is very ably run by sisters Jan and Ann, using very minimum staff hours but with enormous amounts of community buy-in. They have music scheduled every week, often have food trucks and during holidays have author signings or tasting events. The market has loads of seating, a permanent welcome structure with donated coffee and branded merchandise for sale. I tell you all of that to show how they balance the needs of the shoppers (by adding amenities that cannot be offered by the vendors) and the needs of their vendors (they keep the fees low by having less staff hours and carefully curate the products to showcase only high-quality regionally produced items), but also do their very best in their estimation to reduce their own wear and tear as staff.

To that end, they decided long ago to not participate in the same farmers market wireless machine/token system that we had in New Orleans; I had been the Deputy Director of that market organization and in 2006 or so had shared news of our emerging token and benefit program system with nearby markets in case they wanted to add the same; Covington told me then they didn’t see the need in their small town, even though they know and care about the large number of low-income people on benefit programs living nearby and do their best to offer a wide variety of price points and goods. I must confess that after our initial chat I was a bit disappointed by the lack of interest in expanding the reach, but soon realized this was an example of a particular type of market (rural niche) and the leadership was comfortable with the middle-class vibe they had certainly attracted. And I also realized a few years later that if they had been influenced by our complex system, it would have probably been a wrong move for the market at that time (more on that later.)

They knew, however, they at least needed the access for shoppers to get more cash and had asked the bank (a market sponsor) to have an ATM, and had also asked the municipality to add one (the market space is on city hall property), but couldn’t get anyone to move on the request. Finally, a 3rd party entrepreneur approached them to put one in and ta-daa, they finally have their ATM. It is moved in on Saturday morning and out again when the market is done, but the market will have a conversation soon with the mayor (a strong market supporter) about getting it there permanently. I was thrilled to see even that machine, as the nearest bank is blocks away and on far too many days I have grumpily got BACK in my truck to get more cash.

And in the days since those early rounds of proselytizing for (only) a centralized token/EBT/Debit system at every market, my own work has led me to the conclusion that instead there needs to be a suite of systems for markets to choose the appropriate version to process cards, rather than just the one system for everyone. Some markets can serve their shoppers with an ATM (some can own it, some can lease theirs and some can have a 3rd party offer the service like Covington), with some farmers having EBT/debit access on their own; some markets can use a phone-in system for EBT and have a Square on a smart phone at the market or farmer-level; some need the centralized system, but are figuring out electronic token systems; and yes, some do still need to bells and whistles of the centralized token system; and some markets need that system that is still developing, as technology continues to change to add more options for these systems.

What will help this multi-tiered system to happen is for markets to keep on sharing their ideas with each other and to gather data on why their system works for their community. That may be as simple as doing a regular Dot Survey/Bean Poll to ask shoppers about the interest in card use, or doing an annual economic survey like SEED, or asking their vendors on their annual renewal/application form about their use or projected use of card technology (you’d be surprised how many vendors already have Square or another version of it). And markets and vendors that do have the technology need to track the time and effort it takes to process cards and to build the entire system, which includes some outreach and marketing, and a significant amount of bookkeeping and share that information.

I keep gathering examples of innovation among markets and hope that sooner or later I (or other more able researchers) can be tasked with conducting in-depth research about those ideas to offer the market field a more comprehensive and dynamic view of all of the great ideas managed by our market systems. In the meantime, if you come to Covington your pajeon (warm Korean pancake) is on me; after all, I’ve got the cash.

Still time to register for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group meeting in Mobile AL, January 14 – 17 2015

unnamedEarly bird registration for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group is still open for a little bit longer (2 more days) through December 21st. Register online, or download a registration form and get it postmarked no later than Dec 21st for the lowest conference rates. They accept, via mail, checks made payable to Southern SAWG. They accept, via mail and online, VISA, Master Card, American Express and Discover credit cards. Pre-registration continues through midnight on January 7th. After that, registration will be on location in Mobile.

I will be leading two workshops and also moderating an open discussion (information exchange) this year. Find me here:

Information Exchange:
Friday, 10:45 a.m. – Noon

Using EBT, “Double Coupon” and Other Programs at Farmers Markets – Does your market employ the EBT, FMNP, Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINIP) or WIC programs? Do you have a double coupon incentive program for SNAP, WIC or SFNMP? Discuss technology issues and share best practices for implementing these programs at markets.

Workshops:

Saturday, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Why Farmers Markets? Learn to Communicate Their Value to Your Community – Making the case for farmers markets to farmers, shoppers and community leaders is crucial for continued community support, yet most markets struggle with this task. Learn how to capture and communicate meaningful measures of your market’s success. Using exercises and worksheets from the Farmers Market Metrics project, this session will give you practical examples of simple and effective data collection techniques that you can use for your market. Darlene Wolnik, Helping Public Markets Grow (LA) and Sarah Blacklin, NC Choices (NC).

Saturday 3:30-5:00 pm
Farmers Markets as Business Incubators: How Market Managers Can Help Improve Their Vendors’ Businesses – Increasingly competitive market outlets for local food means that the top farmers often jump from market to market. This session will offer practical strategies for market managers and board members on identifying and understanding their anchor vendors and their needs, as well as addressing the challenges of retaining new vendors. Darlene Wolnik, Helping Public Markets Grow (LA) and Sarah Blacklin, NC Choices (NC).

2015 Conference Program — Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.