How To Get People On Food Stamps To Buy More Organic Food
    By Hank Campbell | March 18th 2012 08:42 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Food stamps are not food stamps now, they are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits - and record numbers of Americans are receiving them.

    Given that, it was only a matter of time before attention efforts turned toward getting poor people to overpay for organic food. One way to do that is to make it even easier to buy the stuff.  Currently, buying is already a model of easiness, but only for regular stores.  SNAP participants use - sorry, 'access their benefits' - through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which is like a credit card. Swipe and go. But at a farmer's market, not everyone will have wireless point-of-sale terminals, or wireless service, and it's horrible to imagine asking  someone charging $15 a dozen for organic eggs to cover their own transaction fees. 

    With the economy already a wreck and SNAP participation at an all-time high, you may question why anyone wants to tell poor people what they should eat. Correlation/causation wonkiness implies that since healthier people eat healthier food and wealthier people are fat less often, poor people need to eat organic food and shop at farmer's markets or we are doing them a disservice.

    And it will help local farmers, which advocacy groups for farmer's markets like. Electronic point-of-sale systems did increase farmer's market sales to SNAP recipients by 38% - but farmers say that difference is not enough to justify the cost.

     Obviously, this whole thing is a little confusing.  People are getting food stamps because otherwise they could not have enough for their kids to eat.  They should be worried about maximizing the food they can get for what is truly a small amount of money.  If farmer's markets are not cost-effective, that's just the way it is.

    Co-investigator Allison E. Karpyn, Director of Research and Evaluation at The Food Trust, an advocacy group for farmer's markets, said, "There has been considerable policy interest recently in increasing the redemption of food benefits at farmers' markets. From our experiences managing dozens of farmers' markets here in Philadelphia, we knew that the way SNAP transactions are processed at markets might impact sales. So we set out to learn if making it easier to process these transactions would increase fresh produce and other purchases by SNAP participants."

    Well, the policy interest is developed by groups like The Food Trust - but it is not a market-driven initiative, it is more taxpayer money, this time to subsidize sales for farmers. It's easy to find a group of politicians, especially Democrats in an election year, to offer to spend another $125 million of someone else's money they will need to borrow from China to pay back (S. 1926, H.R. 3525) so getting Al Franken to agree is not really a validation it's a good idea.

    In 2008, The Food Trust received a grant from the USDA's Farmers' Market Promotion Program to provide vendors at the Clark Park Farmers' Market with a wireless terminal for EBT and credit/debit card transactions. The grant covered all associated wireless charges, transaction fees, and processing fees during a pilot program which ran from June 2008 through February 2009. After the pilot period, the market returned to their old model, with a single market-operated terminal and receipt system.

    Researchers analyzed sales data at the market for four years, 17 months before the pilot project and 22 months afterward. "During the time period for our study, the economic downturn really got underway, and SNAP participation and benefits increased enormously in Philadelphia. We had to control for the amount of SNAP benefits issued in the city each month in our evaluation models," explains co-investigator Alison M. Buttenheim, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health&Society scholar. 

    Their findings were what you would expect. When it is easier for people to buy something, they are more likely to buy it, and they registered a 38% increase in SNAP/EBT sales. But after the pilot project ended, sales to SNAP participants declined again. Vendors claimed a 38% increase in sales was not worthwhile. Solution, say the authors: Subsidize the credit card industry and farmers by paying for wireless terminals. Reality: Someone is lying if they say they can afford to be in business but a 40% increase is meaningless unless the government pays for it.

    Advocates should also face an obvious reality - if people are not even willing to even go to a credit card terminal to buy produce at a farmer's market with their food stamps, it really isn't important to them.

     The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 


    Hank oh Hank. Slowly you are wearing me down, but before I put a Romney/Palin sign on my lawn in order to reign in rich progressives exploiting the food stamp system and to be hopefully also in the future protected from the mob of underclass stupids that let their kids go hungry in order to eat 15 dollar eggs, could you back this up a little with relevant data? For example: I am poor and go into expensive shops to seek the two for one deals on food over the expiration date and all that. Why should poor people on food stamps not be able to take advantage of farmer markets - where else can you buy a 30 kilo sack of wheat to last your family for a very long while?
    (I get the point about there being one EBT terminal, but without having gone through the trouble, I assume there is another side to the story; there always is. The increase by 40% is only SNAP (not a full 40% increase). So, if the farmers do not like the trouble, I can well imagine they make it less than comfortable for a mother to insist being able to drag her kids across the market to the one terminal and do whatever else you have probably left out of the whole picture.)
    I would think the convenience for other people is a lot more, so it would be higher than 40%.  Even a Luddite like me does not always carry cash so when I go, I probably buy less than I would if they took a credit card.   On your bulk/lower cost food question; in the US, a farmer's market is not the place to buy cheaper bulk flour, or bulk anything, a large supermarket warehouse is and those already take cards.

    I'm not leaving anything out (for spin purposes, as you chronically imply about everyone but you) as much as finding something interesting and counterintuitive to write about.  Knowing how much people actually get in food stamps - $668 for a family of four - it makes me annoyed that any advocacy group thinks people should be spending it in any way but most efficiently to feed families.  Food is one of those things that simply cannot be cut down but these groups act like all poor people will be forced into obesity and eating at McDonald's if they can't get subsidized wireless credit card terminals at farmer's markets.

    Not to worry, Hank. The Swedes have it figured out:

    “I can’t see why we should be printing bank notes at all anymore,” says Bjoern Ulvaeus . . .

    "that any advocacy group thinks people should be spending it in any way but most efficiently to feed families ... ."
    You leave me unconvinced that these groups do not sincerely think that farmer's markets are part of the way to maximize efficiency - say in terms of healthy nutrition (in terms of calories you buy a sack of flour and are done). But maybe you are right and all farmer's markets are like the one in LA reminding of Trader Joe's. If you mean those member only wholesale houses by the way - I do not remember them actually being cheap looking at the brands they sell and suchlike (I went with people who had a member card and I ended up buying nothing). Apart from that, one has to drive for miles to get to one. If your car has been repossessed and your family dwells next to a Ralphs ...
    Well maybe it needs to be easier, hard to compete with how easy it is to buy junk food at fast food restaurants or at the grocery store.  
    When you have to buy food with food stamps you dont think about organic food...

    That's why government-funded marketing campaigns seem to exist - it's baffling and why I wrote about it.
    I recently got on SNAP because I am disabled & not getting disability or any income; SNAP gave me $200 a month, I thought it would be more than enough but it turned out that with the high cost of food (conventional or organic) that it only made it half way through the month, I am a skinny raw vegan & eat very little, so how does SNAP expect people to survive on so little when groceries are so very expensive?
    I can only find organic produce at Whole Foods Market, krogers & Sprouts, and the prices are way too high, so I have to buy very little of it, I refuse to eat poisonous conventional produce cause it makes me so sick, and there are no organic coops that accept SNAP.
    I also heard the new Farm Bill is going to take off thousands of SNAP.
    The largest problem is that SNAP is providing for million of Hispanics & aliens that come over the border to take advantage of U.S. benefits, which chokes out funds for native U.S. citizens.
    There needs to be a solution to this, too many starving.

    Have you ever considered the fact that these farmers want to keep the government OUT of their weekend market? Like they fight so hard to keep Monsanto out of their back yards? Who cares about the price of the food going up 38% for use of these machines... Right into the pocket of your local politician. Before long they will come in with the attitude, that since the state is actually the "purchaser" of these products they will now have to meet these new requirements....... THEN here comes Monsanto and all the rest making absolutely sure these farmers now have all the tools (poisons) to be "truly efficient" farmers... Another american farmer OWNED! Lets not talk about the fact that these kiosk would be just humiliating for some to use. Keep Food Stamps out of Farmers Markets!!