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.