“Food stamps used to be physical stamps that people would use in supermarkets or farmers markets. A number of years ago, the government switched to an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) swipe card. While it seemed like a great idea, it largely removed farmers markets as an option for lower income people because the farmers markets did not have access to wireless terminals. In places like California, the government went out and bought wireless terminals for every single farmers market. That didn’t happen in DC. Because of that, a whole generation of food stamp recipients here doesn’t know that they can access farmers markets. When I took over the Mt. Pleasant Farmers Market two years ago and heard that we didn’t have that capability, I just went out and bought one out of pocket. Four other area markets got a grant from the city for wireless devices. Now, we have gone from zero to five markets where you can use an EBT card in the DC area. The wireless machine handles EBT, credit and debit cards and costs $1100 plus a $45 monthly charge. The hope is that the fee we charge people for debit cards usage will eventually pay off the cost of the machine. We don’t break even, but it is important that we have it.
“In terms of EBT outreach, this has been a real challenge for all of us at farmers markets. There has been a ton of EBT outreach in this city with very little success. Now, through Women, Infants and Children (WIC), there are food assistance coupons that can only be spent at farmers market. With WIC, DC residents went from spending zero dollars in 2003 to $32,000 a year at farmers markets. I think this is also due, in part, to word of mouth. I need to find some Malcolm Gladwell connector types and have them start spreading the word across DC and bringing their friends to farmers markets. Then, I think we will hit the tipping point with the EBT crowd as we did with WIC. We are putting up signs and doing outreach, but this is a real challenge everywhere, including New York City which has one of the most successful EBT programs in the country. Our numbers are not stellar. At this market, we have zero to two EBT transactions a week. But, we are trying.
“The thing with WIC money is that it is free money that you can only spend at a farmers market. If you don’t use it, it is gone. Whereas the EBT money can be spent at a grocery store. So, if you want to go and buy $80 of Top Ramen noodles, you can do that. While most products at farmers markets are more nutritious, it is a hard choice to make if you have a big, lower income family and need high calorie, inexpensive meals. But, what is hopefully coming this season is Councilmember Tommy Wells’ proposal to get $500,000 in matching funds for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients. The idea is to use $300,000 of that to match EBT money at area farmers markets. If you use $20 of EBT money here, I would give you another $20. Oddly enough, I didn’t ever think the problem would be how to give away $300,000. We don’t have the numbers right now to prove that there are $300,000 worth of sales. EBT customers still don’t know about or don’t want to come to farmers markets. I really want to spread the word to lower income people around the area and I don’t know how to do that yet."
Learn more about the Mt. Pleasant farmers market here. And, if you have suggestions on helping Rebbie and the Mt. Pleasant Farmers Market increase their outreach to lower income individuals, please provide ideas in the comments and/or contact them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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