Breaking Barriers to SNAP Benefits at North Carolina Farmers Markets

Farmers Market in North Carolina. Photo Credit: Roger Winstead, NC State University

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about one in seven of families with children in the U.S. experienced food insecurity, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Food insecurity in North Carolina is higher. Here one in five children struggles with hunger, according to a 2020 study by Feeding America.

The pandemic worsened this situation by breaking food supply chains and ending children’s access to school meals across the country, Feeding America reported in April 2020.

The Democratic candidate for Agriculture Commissioner in North Carolina has an idea on how to help: extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) at the state’s expanding number of farmers markets.

“There are so many things we can do to change what the food desert landscape looks like,” Jenna Wadsworth said during an online food and hunger forum for state office candidates. “We need to support our farmers markets and make sure SNAP benefits are available there.”

Incumbent Steve Troxler expressed support for farmers markets and the Farm to School program, which is unique to NC. On the topic of food insecurity, Troxler stated that food must be more affordable, which requires food production to be more efficient. “Efficiency in agriculture…is going to be the key to the future,” Troxler said.

Currently, only half of North Carolina’s forty-one farmers markets listed in the USDA Farmers Market directory accept SNAP payments.

Once called food stamps, SNAP supplements the food budget of low-income families. In response to COVID-19, coordinated efforts to ensure food access and increase SNAP are desperately needed, researchers wrote in a June 2020 article published in the Journal of Urban Health.

Time and cost barriers limit SNAP availability at farmers markets, which sell fresh, local produce and support small-scale farmers. COVID-19 has added new challenges. Despite this, local and state movements to extend SNAP benefits at North Carolina farmers markets are expanding.

“The development of new farmers markets has exploded nationally over the past 15 years, yet low-income consumers’ use of these markets has not seen the same growth,” according to a 2012 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP).

Bridging this gap creates a win-win for farmers and communities: Developing farmers markets’ capacity to accept federal nutrition programs brings money into local economies and provides fresh, healthy foods to families, according the ASAP report.

To become authorized SNAP retailers, farmers markets must acquire an ID from the Food and Nutrition Service as well as equipment to accept wooden SNAP tokens, which is what markets usually give shoppers to purchase food from farmers.

“That first hurdle has gotten easier,” said Mike McCreary, farmers market program manager at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), a nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Becoming an authorized SNAP retailer is easier now due to federal support and new technology, such as smart phone apps, that eliminate the need for expensive terminals to process SNAP transactions, said McCreary, whose organization supports connections between local farmers and their communities.

The second hurdle is to keep farmers market operations running. It takes a lot of staff and time to collect SNAP tokens and then reimburse vendors, McCreary said.

“You have a situation where you’ve gotten past the initial startup costs, but now you’ve got time and cost of maintaining,” McCreary said. “How you get past that is challenging.”

Forming an association of farmers market could facilitate statewide coordination of efforts to increase market accessibility for low-income shoppers, McCreary suggested.

“There are states that have funding built in to support farmers markets,” McCreary said. One example is the Virginia Farmers Market Association. No statewide farmers market association exists in North Carolina.

COVID-19 presents challenges to extending SNAP benefits at North Carolina farmers markets that no one could have predicted.

At a time when market vendors avoided touching anything customers handled, shoppers tossed their tokens into bins from six feet away. Vendors then waited six hours before processing the tokens.

“That became a challenge, and a couple markets stopped taking SNAP because of physical transmission of tokens,” McCreary said of markets in the Western North Carolina region.

The pandemic has brought more interest in SNAP too, he said. While accepting SNAP tokens became more challenging, support for a pilot program called Double SNAP has increased during COVID McCreary said. In Western North Carolina, the pilot doubles the value of SNAP benefits at some farmers markets.

The food crisis spurred by COVID-19 has now sparked interest in food access, increasing funding and support for programs like Double SNAP. “The impression is that COVID created a crisis in access to local food, or any food. Funders and contributors responded to that. Double SNAP was on the horizon before, but COVID drove it further,” McCreary said.

Kendall Jefferys – Rachel Carson Council Presidential Fellow.

Kendall Jefferys is a Rachel Carson Scholar at Duke University and a dual major in Environmental Science and English. She initiated the RCC Coasts and Ocean Program. [email protected]