Growing Incentives For FoodShare Users At Farmers' Markets

Throughout the growing season, many Wisconsinites stop by farmers' markets to grab a bite to eat, chat with neighbors and, of course, purchase fresh produce and other foods. But this type of shopping can be cost prohibitive for people who have lower or fixed incomes. Until recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants could not apply their benefits, often called food stamps, to fresh produce purchases at farmers' markets. An increasing number of markets around Wisconsin are accepting SNAP, though it remains an incremental process.

In Wisconsin, SNAP is called FoodShare, and it serves roughly one in seven members of the state's population, more than two-fifths of whom are children. Efforts to expand access to farmers' markets through expanded payment options was the focus of a Nov. 12, 2015 presentation at the Cooperative Extension State Conference, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place. Five educators with University of Wisconsin-Extension discussed local campaigns to improve FoodShare practices.

Kristin Krokowski, a commercial horticulture educator with UW-Extension Waukesha County, noted that FoodShare recipients spent about $1.1 billion in total on food through the program in 2014. She said FoodShare spending represents a lot of potential income for farmers and their surrounding communities, adding that for every $5 in benefits used, more than $9 is realized in a local economy.

"Some parts of our state don't have easy access to grocery stores or fresh produce," Krokowski said, "and increasing food access makes this possible for a lot of people to get fresh fruits and vegetables or other types of products that aren't easily available to them."

Nancy Coffey is a local coordinator with UW-Extension Eau Claire County who works with the Nutrition Education Program, which has been since renamed FoodWIse. She sought to reduce stigma and improve the economic stability of FoodShare use at a local farmers’ market. One change was to provide all FoodShare participants who had used Quest cards, as the federal Electronic Benefits Transfer program is known in Wisconsin, with wooden tokens or another market-specific currency that they could spend at participating vendors. Increasingly used around the state, the idea is to help FoodShare recipients feel more confident about using their benefits in a different setting.

Another change involved accepting debit and credit cards. Volunteer cashiers helped keep costs low, and partnerships with local businesses and organizations allowed the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers' Market to offer an incentive program that matched FoodShare spending up to $10 a week.

"Because of the incentive program, we had a 74 percent increase in our FoodShare usage of the program," Coffey said.

Christy Marsden, who was a horticulturalist with UW-Extension Rock County at the time of the conference, worked to facilitate a collaboration between Beloit and Janesville to increase food access for low income individuals. She aimed to create a program that would allow FoodShare recipients to use a shared credit system that would allow them to purchase and use common tokens at markets around the county.

Although farmers' markets are well-attended in both Janesville and Beloit, the two largest communities in Rock County, her applications for grants to create incentive matching and token reciprocity between markets were not accepted. Despite this setback, she said the idea generated strong interest and fostered partnerships with area businesses and organizations.

Brown County adopted an approach similar to those in Eau Claire and Rock counties through offering the option to spend FoodShare dollars at approved farmers' market vendors. Its program had a twist, though: matching incentive program funds could only be used for locally grown fruits and vegetables. Karen Early, a UW-Extension Brown County nutrition education program coordinator, said the policy was geared to help local growers and retain more money in the area's economy.

While there are Electronic Benefits Transfer programs in place at farmers' markets around the state, FoodWIse state coordinator Amber Canto said there are many do not accept these payments, and barriers remain for FoodShare recipients who want to shop at them. She said future efforts around the state will focus on working with farmers’ market partners to develop and improve communications about options available to FoodShare recipients.

Key Facts

  • In 2014, 14.4 percent of Wisconsin's population of 5.7 million people received SNAP benefits, a figure that was three times higher than in 2001. Of the more than 820,000 recipients, 41 percent were children, and 20 percent of benefits went to families with at least one employed adult, who received an average benefit of $239 a month.

  • A 2015 survey of FoodShare recipients in Eau Claire County who shopped at a farmers' market found 100 percent reported eating more fruits and vegetables, 94 percent said they were eating more fresh food, 76 percent said they saved money on fresh produce, and 62 percent said they’d tried at least one new fruit or vegetable.

  • The EBT program in Brown County experienced a 38 percent increase in sales between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and saw another 25 percent increase by the middle of 2015 over its 2014 numbers.

  • In a statewide survey of FoodShare participants, 71 percent said they had shopped at a farmers' market in the previous year; of that group, 35 percent reported using cash, while 22 percent used WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) farmers' market nutrition program vouchers, 18 percent used FoodShare cards and 8 percent used incentive vouchers.

  • In the same statewide survey, nearly 85 percent of respondents said their families liked eating products from the farmers market, but 15 percent expressed a lack of knowledge about how to use the ingredients purchased. Additionally, 80 percent said the time and location of their local farmers’ market was convenient, while 23 percent said their transportation options made it difficult to visit one.

Key Quotes

  • Krokowski on the potential health benefits of expanding FoodShare access to farmers' markets: "It increases fruit and vegetable consumption. There have been many studies that talk about the people who go to the farmers' market to use their SNAP benefits do eat more fruits and vegetables."

  • Coffey on community participation in her market’s EBT program: "I think one of the most important things is this volunteer element that we had going. The 4-H'ers … realize that working at this program was a community piece that they could help [the] farm community, as well as helping their neighbors."

  • Marsden on not receiving grant funding for a Rock County program: "We didn't get either grant, which was kind of a disappointment. But we're a small community and ... the federal grants wanted us to have year-round outreach. Given that we're farmers' markets, and things don't grow in Wisconsin in the winter, that was a little hard."

  • Early on the impact of community partnerships: "Our health care provider partners have been our funders in both 2014 and 2015. They've been so supportive of the markets and the incentive program, which really aligns with… our county health improvement plan, that they're really acknowledging the importance of increasing access of healthy foods for all populations and finding ways that they can partner with us to make that happen."

  • Canto on the goals of a statewide push for EBT use at farmers markets: "Ultimately, we strive to develop a set of outreach strategies for farmers markets to engage the SNAP audience and increase participation in the market."

Growing Incentives For FoodShare Users At Farmers' Markets was originally published on WisContext which produced the article in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.

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October 16, 2017

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