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New Contractor For Food Stamps Upsets Cart For Farmers Markets

This story additionally ran on NPR. This story might be republished without spending a dime (details).

When the lady stopped by Phil Munson’s stall at a Rochester, N.Y., farmers market just lately, he seen a change. A daily buyer, she browsed his Fisher Hill Farm greens as ordinary and chosen just a few to purchase. But this time, as a substitute of providing money for her produce, the lady paid with the wooden tokens obtainable for individuals utilizing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) advantages, previously generally known as meals stamps.

Because the market accepts SNAP advantages, the lady may make her common purchases with no issue. She additionally certified for New York’s FreshConnect program, an incentive for SNAP beneficiaries to enhance their entry to recent meals. So, she received an additional $2 for each $5 she spent on the market, boosting her buying energy by 40 p.c.

Munson mentioned the client purchased eggs that day along with her ordinary greens.

“She was really happy to get the benefit,” Munson recalled. “She said, ‘I can’t believe how much they gave me.’”

Federal and native officers have lengthy mentioned they’re wanting to get farmers’ produce to low-income households’ dinner tables, however for individuals like Munson’s buyer, the flexibility to make use of SNAP advantages sooner or later is unsure. While utilizing meals stamps to buy  greens at a farmer’s stall could appear to be a easy trade, it depends upon advanced authorities contracting necessities and more and more subtle expertise.

A change this 12 months in federal contracts has left some market operators and advocates nervous. The firm that supplied the expertise utilized by roughly 1,700 of the greater than 7,000 farmers markets that settle for SNAP advantages mentioned it’s pulling out of the enterprise.

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Earlier this 12 months, federal officers introduced that they had picked a brand new contractor to supply gear to assist increase the variety of markets that deal with SNAP transactions. That contractor, when selecting the businesses it could work with, didn’t embody the Novo Dia Group, whose “Mobil Market+” app is utilized by these markets. Following that, Novo Dia introduced it could, as of the top of July, no longer provide that service even to current shoppers.

The announcement, coming on the top of the market season, took many operators and advocates abruptly and set off an pressing scramble to keep away from a disruption in service. The National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs stepped in to fund the processing platform’s operations for one month, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo later introduced a short-term agreement with the corporate to supply service nationally by means of the top of February.

What occurs after that continues to be unclear.

For some farmers, SNAP prospects make up an necessary a part of their market enterprise.

“I think it would be noticed if it went away,” mentioned Anita Amsler, whose household sells produce and eggs from their Oldhome Farm on the Rochester Public Market year-round.

Some advocates, nonetheless, see the present scenario as a chance to enhance the long-term prospects for the acceptance of SNAP and different diet advantages at farmers markets.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” mentioned David Sandman, president and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation, who has written in regards to the SNAP processing issues. He mentioned his group and others are fascinated with choices for persevering with to make the Nova Dia app obtainable nationally by means of a public-private partnership.

Jesse Bania holds $5 SNAP tokens on the Portland Farmers’ Market on April 2016, in Portland, Maine.(Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald by way of Getty Images)

The markets’ recognition amongst SNAP customers is rising. SNAP profit redemptions by farmers and markets grew by greater than a 3rd from 2012 to 2017, to $22.4 million, in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“They are important touchstones and places for people to access their food the way other consumers do,” mentioned Ellen Vollinger, authorized director on the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group that works to cut back starvation among the many poor.

When farmers market prospects wish to use SNAP advantages, their first cease is usually at a central market workplace — like a tent or a trailer — to swipe their SNAP digital advantages card for no matter quantity they wish to spend. They are typically given wood tokens or paper scrip in small denominations of $1 or $5 to spend on the market. They may get incentive coupons — like these from New York’s FreshConnect program — to spice up their buying energy.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees SNAP on the federal degree, has lengthy championed farmers markets as an necessary method to supply individuals with nutritious meals whereas additionally supporting farmers economically.

Every few years, that company awards a contract to a firm to manage the wireless processing equipment program for farmers markets and farmers who wish to start accepting SNAP advantages. In March, it chosen Financial Transaction Management of Reston, Va.

The Farmers Market Coalition, the earlier contractor, had provided gear to markets by means of three suppliers, together with Novo Dia.

The new contractor opted to not work with Novo Dia. When selecting gear choices, Financial Transaction Management centered on value effectiveness and compliance with requirements that shield farmers markets from legal responsibility within the occasion of a knowledge breach, mentioned CEO Angela Sparrow by e mail.

“It did throw Novo Dia into a tailspin,” mentioned Diane Eggert, government director of the Farmers Market Federation of New York, who helped put the stopgap funding for the corporate in place and is searching for a long-term resolution. “They needed to continue growing to maintain operations.”

Novo Dia didn’t reply to a request for remark.

The Mobile Market+ app works with a smartphone to allow processing of SNAP advantages. The smartphone expertise enhances markets’ capacity to trace gross sales and transactions by means of the app and permits for frequent expertise updates, Eggert mentioned.

The present gear supplied by the brand new contractor is an ordinary wi-fi point-of-sale system that makes use of older, outdated expertise, critics say.

Financial Transaction Management is processing functions from farmers markets for its gear. As of Sept. 24, 140 functions have been within the review-and-approval course of, and 46 items of kit had shipped, in response to USDA officers.

The Food and Nutrition Service mentioned it’s fascinated with modernizing its method. It desires to make use of a “bring your own device” mannequin for the market operators who wish to start processing SNAP through which “markets and farmers would use a smartphone and FNS would facilitate provision of [an] app,” officers mentioned.

To that finish, the USDA is testing a cellular software and encryption system that could possibly be used with a smartphone to simply accept SNAP advantages. The new app, which would require a separate PIN-encryption system, is “not as streamlined” because the Novo Dia app, in response to USDA officers. Still, “this is an option that could provide additional flexibility for farmers and markets while also reducing cost to the federal government.”

That choice could also be obtainable by 12 months’s finish.

In addition to federal efforts to advertise SNAP purchases at farmers markets, some states, comparable to California, have taken an energetic function in offering their markets with free wi-fi gear to course of transactions.

But the present upheaval has sown uncertainty amongst many farmers markets about their capacity to deal with SNAP transactions subsequent 12 months.

Last 12 months, the Rochester Public Market processed greater than $800,000 in SNAP advantages and $300,000 in incentives, mentioned Margaret O’Neill, program director for Friends of the Rochester Public Market, a nonprofit that runs the market’s SNAP program. She mentioned she has tried to reassure her distributors and prospects that a resolution will likely be discovered: “It’s a huge market for us.”

This story additionally ran on NPR. This story might be republished without spending a dime (details).

Michelle Andrews: andrews.khn@gmail.com”>andrews.khn@gmail.com, @mandrews110

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