Every year, the government doles out $1.2 billion to Massachusetts residents to help buy food. The program is called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Until recently, the money was given out as food stamps—physical, tangible pieces of paper. But in the late 90s, SNAP went electronic. Residents who get food assistance now get it in the form of an EBT card—essentially a debit card—that is recharged by the state. You can use it pretty much anywhere you could use a credit card.
Unfortunately, this does not include most farmers' markets.
That up there is Gretel Norgeot, manager of the Orleans Farmers' Market, showing off a brand new POS (or point of sale) machine. It's new this year, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The state set aside $50,000 in 2009 to help expand and support the use of SNAP at farmers' markets, and it's starting to see some progress. As of 2007, only 9 farmers' markets could accept SNAP. By 2010, that number was up to 58.
Orleans is one of the first markets on the Cape to be able to accept SNAP. (Falmouth, Plymouth, and the Sandwich summer market are also now hooked up with a POS machine.) It basically works like an ATM—you swipe your SNAP or credit or debit card just like you would at the grocery store. Only instead of cash, you receive tokens that are good only at the Orleans Farmers' Market. This is Gretel's system. Other markets have their own systems; she thought the tokens would work well because it meant the market only needed one machine, not one for every farmer. It also means that anyone who forgets cash but has their regular debit or credit card can get tokens to spend at the market. At the end of the day, the vendors hand their tokens in to Gretel in exchange for payment.
It's pretty neat. It's great for the farmers' markets, since it means growers have access to that $1.2 billion pool of SNAP money. And it's great for SNAP clients, who now have better access to fresh, healthy food from local farms.
The federal government also has grants available—a total of $4 million—to help address the problem. If you're a market manager or farmer interested in accepting SNAP, here's a link to get you started.
And if you're looking to spend SNAP money at a farmers' market, here's how to find one near you.