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Food Stamp Benefits a Mixed Bag for Texas Farmers Markets

Specner Selvidge for the Texas Tribune

Using wooden tokens, Ellen Ray pays for carrots, parsnips and broccoli at the Austin Sustainable Food Center’s farmers market in Sunset Valley. Ray, a participant in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is grateful that the market allows customers to buy its fresh produce with SNAP benefits.

“I was overwhelmingly enthusiastic when I found out they took SNAP,” Ray said, eyeing jam at one stand. “It’s an enabler to do something I already love.”

SNAP, which is operated in Texas by the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, has provided grants and other support to states including Texas to make it easier for farmers markets to accept benefits as currency. Another federally funded program that helps low-income Texans buy groceries, the Texas Women, Infants and Children program, launched a two-year pilot program in December 2011 to allow farmers markets to accept WIC customers.

While the number of farmers markets offering SNAP is growing, WIC participation has struggled to gain traction. State officials and legislators say increasing access to fresh food will improve Texans' health and quality of life, and farmers markets are on the front lines of bringing local, healthy food to Texans.

Thanks in part to a pilot program in 2010-11 that allowed farmers markets to get SNAP card machines for free from HHSC, the number of Texas farmers markets and market associations offering SNAP has jumped from three to 49 since 2008. The machines can cost up to $1,200. The commission paid the $45 monthly fee for one year under the pilot, after which the markets had to pick up that fee. The pilot cost more than $26,000, according to HHSC spokeswoman Linda Edwards Gockel. 

In 2012, 48 of the markets and associations saw a total average of $3,920 per month in SNAP sales. One market is not included in the average because of exceptionally high sales, Edwards Gockel said. The funds, staff and technology needed to operate SNAP benefits aren't feasible for some markets. During the original pilot, 14 markets withdrew citing these reasons.

Suzanne Santos, the farmers market director for the Austin Sustainable Food Center, said a person’s income shouldn’t prevent his or her family from enjoying the fresh products sold at the center’s four Central Texas farmers markets. They have accepted SNAP for eight years and signed on to the WIC pilot right away, Santos said.

“The fact that [benefit users] are purchasing at farmers markets and getting things that are direct from farms means the likelihood that they’ll eat that fruit or vegetable is higher and it’s a good use of those benefit dollars,” Santos said. “Our argument is it tastes great, it’s ecologically friendly and it’s good for the local economy.”

And accepting SNAP is good business for her group — in 2012, customers spent about $27,000 SNAP dollars at the center’s markets.

The Austin Sustainable Food Center attracts more benefits customers to farmers markets by using outside grants to fund the Double Dollar Incentive Program, which allows the market to match the number of SNAP or WIC dollars a customer spends, Santos said.

Edwards Gockel said the commission appreciates federal efforts to help get benefit users to farmers markets “because we want to see Texans eat healthier.”

So far, the WIC pilot program has had a hard time attracting customers, said John Hannemann, who helps manage the WIC program for the Department of State Health Services.

The state used more than half a million dollars in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to develop and design the system to allow farmers markets to accept WIC and equip markets with the technology. After more than a year, WIC participants have spent just over $3,000 in WIC dollars at farmers markets. WIC transactions peaked in June with about $475 spent that month.

WIC only allots $6 to $10 in fruits and vegetables per month per woman and child, and “if you’re going to a place where that’s all you can buy, it takes away some of the allure of going there,” Hannemann said. 

The WIC pilot program is in place in five Texas cities, and Hannemann said it is not likely it will expand to more markets after the pilot program ends, though they may add another city this year. Markets that already offer WIC could keep doing so after the pilot.

The San Antonio Farmer's Market Association was on the pilot originally, but Juan Gonzalez, the association's president, said the program was too complicated and they stopped using it after a couple of months.

Helping a WIC customer took farmers much longer than a non-WIC customer because the farmers had to input each item and its cost separately. Sometimes it took so long that other customers would leave to buy produce from another farmer instead, Gonzalez said.

“I couldn’t add that burden to the farmers. They’re already fighting the weather and lack of water,” Gonzalez said. “Now we’re going to have to tell them to take additional time to sell under the WIC program?"

His markets still take SNAP, which he said is a good source of revenue.

Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said it doesn’t make sense to bolster farmers market benefit programs when so many grocery stores and public schools aren’t offering enough healthy produce.

Although farmers markets are “a good thing, their reach will always be limited,” Cooper said. “From my perspective, if we’re going to spend limited dollars in trying to improve things, we should be focusing on where more people are likely to go, which is supermarkets and corner stores, and making sure they have access and can use their benefits those places and get affordable, nutritious food.”

The limited hours and locations of farmers markets, not to mention higher prices, mean they are not a viable shopping option for people on benefits who work long hours and have limited transportation, Cooper said.

But state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said farmers markets play a critical role in increasing access to healthy food for all Texans, a primary goal of the Farm to Table Caucus, which he founded last year. As the number of farmers markets in Texas grows and more Texans learn about the benefits of buying there, he expects the number of customers to grow, he said in an email. 

"We simply have to increase access to healthy food," Rodriguez said. "It's tough to get funding for anything new right now, so in the meantime the caucus would like to make sure we aren't adding more barriers to entry. We also have to make sure outdated laws aren't getting in the way."

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