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.

FMC’s Free SNAP EBT Equipment Program is Open

As you may have heard, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) partnered with the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) to provide eligible farmers markets and direct marketing farmers with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) equipment necessary to process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

WHAT


FMC will cover the costs of purchasing or renting SNAP EBT equipment and services (set-up costs, monthly service fees, and wireless fees) for up to three years. After their application has been approved, eligible farmers and farmers markets will choose their own SNAP EBT service provider from a list of participating companies. Transaction fees (for SNAP EBT, credit, and debit payments) will not be covered.

WHEN


The application period will open at 9:00am EST Tuesday, February 17th, 2015. This is a first-come, first-serve opportunity, which will be over when all the funds have been allocated. Don’t wait!

WHO


SNAP-authorized farmers markets and direct marketing farmers (who sell at one or more farmers markets) are eligible for funding if they became authorized before Nov. 18, 2011, AND fall into one of the following categories:

A. They do not currently possess functioning EBT equipment; OR

B. They currently possess functioning EBT equipment, but received
that equipment before May 2, 2012.

Wondering what qualifies as ‘not currently possessing functioning EBT equipment?

Markets and farmers do not currently possess functioning EBT equipment if:

They currently rely on manual/paper vouchers to accept SNAP,
They do not currently accept SNAP and have never possessed functioning SNAP EBT equipment, or
They do not currently accept SNAP because their EBT equipment is
:
Damaged beyond repair.
Non-operational because their SNAP EBT service provider no longer offers SNAP EBT processing in their state.
Stolen or lost.
For more information on the program, including frequently asked questions, an eligibility chart, background information and application instructions, visit them at farmersmarketcoalition.org/programs/freesnapebt
found here.

Farmers Market Coalition helping SNAP at markets through USDA contract

The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) has been awarded a USDA contract to assist in improving and expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at farmers markets nationwide.  Through the contract, FMC will collaborate with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to administer $4 million in grants for SNAP programming needs and replacement wireless electronic benefit transfer (EBT) equipment.

Over the next twelve months, FMC will complete the following objectives in collaboration with FNS: (1) establish a process that FNS will use to award support grants to eligible farmers markets, and (2) establish and implement a process to provide replacement SNAP EBT equipment and services to farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers that are operating SNAP programs in situations of hardship.

The funds will be used to provide markets and farmers with various types of support. FNS has identified the most commonly requested types of assistance, in descending order:

  1. Personnel costs to operate farmers markets;
  2. Materials to materials to inform SNAP participants of their ability to use their benefits at farmers markets;
  3. Miscellaneous equipment, such as scrip, and technology infrastructure (wifi hotspots, phone lines, electrical lines, etc.);
  4. Replacement equipment and for existing markets and farmers that are in situations of hardship.

Needs numbered 1, 2, and 3 above will be addressed in the form of support grants for eligible farmers markets, while number 4, the need for replacement equipment, will be addressed separately.  It is expected that of the total $4 million, approximately $3.3 million will be used for support grants, while the remaining $700,000 will be spent on replacement equipment.

FMC is eager to assist USDA FNS in fulfilling their goal of supporting local food systems by expanding access to healthy foods for SNAP participants. FMC Executive Director Jen Cheek shared, “SNAP redemptions at farmers markets have risen dramatically over the past five years, but they still represent a extremely small percentage of total SNAP benefit spending.  This support from USDA will help markets and farmers build strong SNAP programs – getting more fresh, locally farmed food to the Americans who need it most.”

Wisconsin farmers market graphic on benefit program usage

Professor Alfonso Morales, principal investigator to the Indicators for Impact project sent this interesting graphic to the project team last week:
PDF

here is the top part for those unable to see the PDF:

WISNAP_graphictop

Using infographics to tell a story about multiple benefits is rapidly growing throughout the farmers market field and the Farmers Market Coalition Farmers Market Metrics project (including the Indicators for Impact research) has already devised prototypes of reports and graphics for markets which will continue to be refined. Here are some examples of how some of the FMM/FMC prototype markets have already used the graphics on FB and in print too:

JacksonFB1

AkronFB1

Jackson_print1

How A Government Computer Glitch Forced Thousands Of Families To Go Hungry

“The glitches in North Carolina mark another example of government technology gone awry, turning a program created to sustain millions of people through hard times into a new aggravation. The high-profile failure of the federal health care exchange last fall illustrated what many low-income people have encountered for years: faulty computer systems and websites that prevent them from receiving public assistance on time.

In North Carolina, the fix was simple: In August, caseworkers found that their computers stopped crashing if they switched browsers from Internet Explorer to Google Chrome.

But the backlog kept growing. By the end of last year, more than 30,000 families in North Carolina had waited more than a month to receive food stamps — a violation of federal rules that require routine applications be processed within 30 days. About one third of those families had waited three months or more.”

How A Government Computer Glitch Forced Thousands Of Families To Go Hungry.

Credit Card Payments Market Competition

Here is a link to an excerpt on the politics of credit card systems. It illuminates how startups companies wanting to provide services face difficulties, including this:

Two pieces in the chain are particularly vulnerable to disruption: the makers of the actual hardware — basically card readers and registers — that are used to physically accept card payments at stores, and the hundreds of vendors known as merchant service providers, or MSPs, which set businesses up to accept credit cards.

The entire article (unfortunately you must pay to get it) speaks to some of the issues we are facing with MobileMarket et al in expanding technology to lower capacity markets and farmers. It also shows the need for the food movement to embed knowledge on card and currency issues so that we stay ahead or at least on the curve of changes, rather than being pawns of the very small set of multi-national players in technology and card processing. If, like me, you accessed the entire article (or others like it) and want to have a conversation, I’m interested in talking about these issues in more depth. Feel free to contact me…

Credit Card Payments Market Competition 2 – Business Insider.

an excerpt from another article on the subject raises many of the same questions:

“…with the global roll-out of mobile payment services comes uncertainty for both banks and consumers, and this is evident in the lack of standardization in mobile payments technology. Financial institutions are facing a major dilemma. When planning mobile payment services, they need to select one of the available technologies in the hope that it will become the dominant standard, or they risk being left behind.”

What I Learned from a Week on Food Stamps: Paul Ryan Couldn’t Be Any More Wrong

A surprisingly well done article, even though it springs from what I consider an overdone and less than useful premise that I’ve seen before: a reporter using SNAP for a week. However, this one is has decent information and connects this issue to some larger issues, partially thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon.

The average amount that a family on food stamps gets per month is $133. That is $133 for 93 meals. For three meals a day, $133 breaks down to less than $1.50 per meal.

Luckily, the New York City Department of Human Resources’ website has guides available for SNAP participants, including a one that explains how to “Cut the Junk” and another with recipes for healthy and cheap meals on it. (Most of these are bean/chili based….)

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Daniel Bowman Simon is deep into SNAP, which is the focal point of his research at New York University’s Food Studies program. And he is frustrated. Seated in the Food Studies program’s fifth-floor conference room, he ticks off a list of grievances relating to the SNAP program and the Farm Bill, as well as the media’s coverage of the issue — framed as a contest between farm subsidies and SNAP benefits….

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My mom posed a simple question: “Sarah, does SNAP feed people?”

“Yes,” I responded, “and it’s actually really efficient.” It’s true: SNAP has less than a 4 percent error rate, according to Riley — and sometimes that error is because of people who received less money than they should have. The program also has very low rates of fraud. The USDA just released a report saying that only 2.77 percent of errors in the programwere in the form of overpayment, which includes fraudulent applications.

“Food is one of the most cost effective forms of prevention,” Sarah Franklin explains. Obesity, cognitive abilities, and heart disease are all linked to eating habits. “Making sure that people have access to food is, in my mind, one of the most important and no-brainer policies,” she says. “The food stamp program, even though it’s not the perfect program — to make cuts to that program is idiotic.”

What I Learned from a Week on Food Stamps: Paul Ryan Couldn’t Be Any More Wrong | Alternet.