Food Stamp Redemptions at New Hampshire Farmers' Markets

Final Report for LNE04-199

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $30,968.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Helen Costello
UNH Cooperative Extension
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Project Information

Summary:

The Food Stamp Program was originally enacted as a dual program to provide an economic stimulus to farmers and to make food more available to people who were living in poverty. Low income households received paper food stamps, or coupons, to purchase food. They could be used in supermarkets and at authorized farm stands and farmers’ markets. In 1998, the Food Stamp Program in New Hampshire instituted a new method of delivering food stamp benefits by introducing the Food Stamp Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or EBT card. The card functions much like a bank debit card and has provided many benefits to the food stamp participant, the administration of the program and to food retailers.

The unintended consequence of the change from paper to electronic benefits was the inability of small farmers who sell their goods directly to the public to readily accept EBT cards. It was costly or cumbersome for farmers to bring the technology to their farm stands or markets. EBT terminals required a land phone line and electricity or a costly wireless terminal and expensive service package. Or, the farmers could use a cell phone to call in the transactions. In 2004 when this project started many farmers did not use cell phones and the other options were not logistically or economically feasible for local farmers in New Hampshire.

The purpose of this project was to demonstrate a way for farmers to sell their products to Food Stamp EBT recipients at farmers’ markets using a market wide system. The goal was to remove the risk and burden to the individual market vendors and to provide access to the market for food stamp recipients. During the last year paper food stamps were available in New Hampshire, food stamp sales to food stamp recipients at farm stands and farmers’ market totaled approximately $18,000 throughout the state. In FY2004, over $43.5 million in food stamp benefits were distributed in the state. The expectation was that individual market vendors who participated in the project would increase their sales. The project markets were located in or adjacent to low income neighborhoods in Manchester and Nashua, and in the rural town of Enfield, where at least 1000 people in the immediate area received food stamp benefits. Farmers and food vendors who sold food items other than fruits and vegetables were also expected to benefit because they were not eligible to accept the WIC or Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons but could accept food stamp benefits.

SARE funding provided support for three markets over three years. In the first year the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA also funded two additional markets through the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program. The two additional markets were Sanbornton and Laconia. They discontinued their participation due to the lack of participation by food stamp recipients.

The project provided the means for markets to accept the EBT cards and a staff person to conduct the transactions at a central location at the markets. Customers came to the EBT stall, presented their EBT cards and requested an amount of market scrip. They could then spend the scrip at any food vendor at the market. At the end of the day the vendor turned in the scrip at the EBT booth, received a receipt for it and the following week the market managers wrote checks to the vendors for their EBT transactions.

In addition to providing the opportunity to use their EBT cards at the markets, informal nutrition education events were planned with food stamp customers. We held focus groups with both food stamp recipients and with farmers as formative research for developing the scrip system at the markets. In the fall of 2004, we conducted a post season debriefing at the annual NHFMA meeting with market managers and farmers from the participating markets. The meetings were open to all farmers in New Hampshire, however, only those that participated in the pilot markets attended. Approximately fifteen farmers attended representing 10 farms. In 2005, two markets indicated they did not have the resources to continue the following year when the plan called for the market to manage the EBT transactions. One market, Enfield, had less EBT transactions than the other two, but more community support to assist the market in conducting the transactions and continued the pilot.

In 2005, with SARE’s approval (Appendix 1), we opted to change our plan of work and conduct a survey rather than a debriefing. The survey was conducted in June 2006. By doing this we secured responses from more individual farms than we had from the 2004 post season debriefing and were able to collect more information. The final product from the demonstration project is a how-to manual for market managers and owners of farm stands on the process of accepting EBT cards. The manual was completed and distributed in June 2008. In the interim between 2004 and 2008 the project coordinator presented the projected at the 2004 and 2005 Farm and Forest Expos, the 2005 New England Farmers’ Market Workshop and the 2006 Vermont Direct Marketing Conference. We met with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service in Boston and the Commissioner of Health Human Services and Director of Health and Human Services to explore how the state might use its cooperative buying power with other states to help decrease the cost of the technology. We also participated in a USDA Northeast Region conference call with state and federal food stamp and EBT managers, farmers, market managers and other professionals to work toward a solution on a larger scale. These additional activities have contributed to the local, regional and national discussion about how to solve a national policy issue.

Introduction:

The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension (UNHCE) in collaboration with the New Hampshire Farmers’ Market Association (NHFMA) conducted a demonstration project that allowed food stamp recipients to use their food stamp EBT cards at three farmers’ markets in New Hampshire. Formative research using focus groups with both food stamp recipients and market managers helped evaluate the design of a market wide system that supported this service for food stamp recipients and farmers’ market food vendors.

The project was designed to provide test markets with equipment and staff the first two years. A kiosk system was arranged where food stamp recipients could purchase market scrip with their EBT cards in the amount they chose and subsequently spend it at any food vendor at the markets. In the third year the markets were expected to take over the scrip transactions and the grant provided technical support and equipment but no staff. The project coordinator maintained regular contact with lead steering committee members and/or market managers throughout the project to informally assess the potential for the market to manage the EBT kiosk given the unique resources at each market.

Informal nutrition education was provided at all three markets twice each season in 2004 and 2005 and at the Enfield market in 2006. This was in the form of taste tests of healthy recipes made from ingredients from the market. The goal of the nutrition education was to attract food stamp recipients to the kiosk which provided the opportunity to reinforce nutrition messages and provide education to the food stamp recipients about the market.

Evaluation of the project was conducted through a post season meeting with market managers in fall 2004 and a final mailed survey in spring 2006. The project provided insight into the challenges of accepting EBT cards at farmers’ markets. Participation by food stamp recipients was low. A how-to manual was produced for market managers who wish to learn more about accepting food stamp EBT cards at farmers’ markets. This report describes the results for each milestone in the work plan and discussion of the outcomes and results. The project manager also presented four workshops about the project during the course of the pilot project.

Performance Target:

Performance target 1*:

Of 45 farmers’ markets in New Hampshire at least 15 market managers will attend the Food Stamp Workshop at the February 2004 New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo and 3 will begin to accept food stamps at their farmers’ markets.

Outcome: Only five market managers attended the Food Stamp Workshop; however, of those, three pilot markets were identified and became the demonstration markets for the project.

Performance target 2*:

Of the 150 farmers who sell food at New Hampshire farmers’ markets, 30 farmers from three pilot markets, will within three years collectively increase their revenue by accepting food stamp EBT cards.

Outcome: Performance target 2 was marginally met. Scrip transactions increased market vendors’ revenue, but only by very small amounts. In Manchester, the most successful of the markets, there was only $1,000 in scrip transactions per season only increasing food vendor revenue on average $40 per season. In Nashua, the most scrip sales only averaged $40 -50 per food vendor per season and at the Enfield market the best year was only 1-2 transaction per season for the entire market.

*2008 update: there are now 75 farmers’ markets in New Hampshire. There is no formal accounting of the number of farmers who participate.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jack Potter

Research

Materials and methods:

Prior to starting the project, discussions with farmers provided mixed reactions about accepting food stamp benefits at the markets. Some had experience with the paper coupons and were interested to learn more about how to participate. Others were hesitant and were not sure they wanted to be involved. The steering committees of the three demonstration markets were all supportive of the proposal and were instrumental in moving the project forward. The plan called for formative research to test the idea with market managers and to recruit markets. This was done by holding an information session at the New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo which attracts both farmers’ market managers and vendors from all over the state. NHFMA invited the project coordinator to speak on their agenda at New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo in 2004 and 2005.

After the project markets were identified at Farm and Forest Expo, we conducted focus group/listening sessions at the three pilot market growers’ meetings to listen to vendors’ concerns. The purpose of these meetings was to address concerns early on in the process and plan to make corrections in the project logistics. Overall, farmers were accepting of the concept and the concerns were with perceptions about food stamp recipients and government programs overall rather than the project logistics. The project coordinator held individual meetings with market steering committee members prior to the growers’ meetings which helped addressed some of the concerns prior to presenting the idea at market meetings.

In the spring of 2004, three focus groups were conducted with food stamp recipients in Manchester to understand their concerns about using their EBT cards at the markets. Two were conducted at the Visiting Nurses Association, with young mothers receiving food stamps. The third was conducted at the Families in Transition housing complex. Interns from the University of New Hampshire Dietetic Internship assisted with the development of the focus group questions and served as recorders for the focus groups with food stamp recipients as part of their research competencies.

Based on focus groups and meetings a plan was developed for the markets. The first part of the plan was to install a food stamp kiosk at each demonstration market beginning in the 2004 growing season. In 2004 and 2005 staff at the booth would be supported by the grant. In 2006 markets were expected to provide staff support at the booth with supplies and equipment provided from the grant. The booths were supplied with an EBT machine, landline machines in Nashua and Enfield and a wireless machine in Manchester. Manchester was the chosen location for the wireless EBT terminal due to the expense of accessing underground telephone lines and their accessibility to reliable wireless service (Appendix 8).

The Nashua market was located in a church parking lot and the church allowed us to install a telephone pole. The pole and installation were donated by a local construction business. The telephone company installed an interface box on the pole providing us with a landline (Appendix 8). We used a car battery and portable generator as sources of electricity for the EBT machine.

In Enfield, the market is located in a field behind a church. The church allowed us to install a telephone interface box on their building and allowed us to use their outside electrical outlet (Appendix 8).

Telephone service, office supplies/signage, tent, table, table cloth and chairs were supported by grant funds for each market. Twice during the season University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Nutrition Connection staff and Master Gardeners attended the market providing printed nutrition information and recipes of market produce for customers to try. These events helped to attract people to the booth and help promote the project. Signage was placed in social service agencies, laundromats, bus lines, low income housing facilities and other locations where low income families frequent. Press releases were distributed and the Nutrition Connections program added information about the markets accepting EBT cards was printed in the Smart Choices newsletters, mailed to all food stamp households.

Scrip is a form of “market money” used in lieu of cash. Each market had unique scrip for their market and it was not transferable between markets. Manchester used a wooden token in $0.50 and $1.00 increments, the other pilot markets selected paper scrip. For sales not in fifty cent increments farmers made up the sale by adding in a comparable value product or EBT customers used their own change. Using scrip is outside of the regulations for accepting food stamp benefits and requires a written formal proposal to the state EBT manager who forwards it to the USDA regional FNS office and then on to USDA in Washington, DC for approval. Markets considering this method should plan on a two month lead time if they wish to begin accepting EBT cards when they open for the season. This process is required each year. The Project Coordinator assumed this additional responsibility for the pilot markets in New Hampshire during the three years of the study.

The Manchester market held a formal food stamp training session and the Enfield market required each vendor to view the Food Stamp training DVD prior to receiving their vendor sign. The project coordinator and staff for the project met with each food vendor from each of the markets at the beginning of each season to review the scrip procedure, distribute signs and answer questions. The Nashua market only has two vendors and the project coordinator conducted training with them. Consequences for not complying with food stamp and EBT regulations are significant and all market managers and market steering committees took the responsibility seriously. The Enfield market was the only market that committed to providing the service the third year. Their Main Street Program (Enfield Village Association) sponsors the market and they offered to host the EBT terminal at their booth staffed with volunteers who were trained to conduct the EBT transactions.

At the annual fall meeting of the NHFMA in 2004, the project coordinator held a post season briefing with participating markets to evaluate the process. Twenty five market managers and farmers attended the meeting representing ten farms. In the fall of 2005, the Enfield market was the only market that committed to the providing the service the third year.

The two more active markets declined to continue the project and the project coordinator requested and received approval from SARE to change the plan of work. A survey in June 2006 was conducted rather than a debriefing in fall 2005. A written survey was mailed to all food vendors at the participating markets to evaluate the project for the first two seasons. Twenty seven surveys were mailed to food vendors from all three of the pilot markets. We received ten responses after sending the first survey and only an additional 2 after a second mailing a month later for a total of twelve responses.

The final outreach piece for the project was completed in June 2008. An extension was granted from SARE to complete the final report and the How To Manual for farmers’ markets. The manual is printed and has been distributed to market managers (Appenndix 2). A formal market mentor program is not appropriate at this time because the response was limited. The former project coordinator is available to provide guidance and direction to markets that are interested in accepting EBT at the markets.

Research results and discussion:

The original proposal included seven milestones. The first, holding a workshop at the 2004New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo, was completed before notification of the grant award because we were starting our formative research during that time. At the time New Hampshire had 45 farmers’ markets and, based on previous workshop attendance at NHFMA hosted sessions at Farm and Forest, we hoped that 15 would respond to the invitation to attend the session. Only 5 attended; however, we met our goal of getting 3 markets to sign up as demonstration markets. We do not have a way of knowing why the attendance was low. The winter weather was bad that day which may have contributed to low attendance, or it may have been the topic or competing sessions. Because these are open sessions there was no pre-registration process to follow up on. As an aside from this project, the NHFMA offered a workshop at the 2007 NH Farm and Forest Expo and invited the NH/VT Field Officer for USDA Food and Nutrition Service to speak about how to apply to become a food stamp merchant at farmers’ markets. The workshop was well attended. It is not known how many followed up, however, the technology is becoming more accessible, most farmers use cell phones now and we hope that our project has had some impact on farmers’ receptivity to accepting EBT cards at their farm stands and the farmers’ markets. This is an observation only and has not been formally evaluated.

Milestones two through six were completed. Number six was modified to include a mailed survey rather than a post season group debriefing. This was done to capture responses from individual vendors of the two markets that opted out of the third year. We wanted to get their responses before the end of the project when memories were fresh rather than waiting a year.

We wanted at least 25 farmers from 3 markets to attend the growers’ meeting focus groups. We had both vendors from the Nashua market, 15 from the Manchester market and 10 from the Enfield market exceeding our goal of 25. We were able to secure the attendance by combining our session with the beginning of the season annual meetings for each market. Attendance is high at these meetings and it is a good opportunity to meet farmers and collect their insights about the project.

Milestone three had a goal of training at least 30 farmers in the process of accepting food stamps scrip. This was accomplished because the market managers had a vested interest in meeting this requirement. The market managers and/or market steering committees had to include their names on the Food Stamp Merchant permit. They are the ultimate responsible party if there is a breach in the food stamp policy at their markets. They took the lead in assuring their food vendors viewed the food stamp DVD. Manchester was especially vigilant and required a market meeting immediately prior to the first market in 2004 so that all vendors had an opportunity to view the DVD together.

The project coordinator and dietetic interns from the University of New Hampshire Dietetic Internship conducted the focus groups of food stamp recipients. The goal was to conduct one in each city/town were the demonstration markets were located. We were unable to secure a focus group in Enfield. Two social service agencies in Manchester responded by providing us with space and participants to attend the focus groups. We planned for 8-10 per group and were able to include 8 in each of the two groups we conducted the Visiting Nurses Association young mothers program and 5 at the Families in Transition agency totaling 21 food stamps recipients. The groups were very vocal and half said they would likely use their EBT cards at the farmers’ markets. The ones that were not interested did not go to the markets for a variety of reasons, or preferred to go to a grocery store where they can just make one trip for all of their groceries. In 2004 price was not a deterrent for most of the respondents. Most perceived prices to be comparable or lower than supermarket prices.

The ones who attended farmers’ markets had either been introduced to markets through WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons in the past and liked going to the markets, or had grown up on or around farms and appreciated fresh summer produce. It appears that the food stamp participants in our focus groups who enjoyed farmers’ markets enjoyed them for most of the same reasons as cited from other socio-economic groups. They liked the fresh food, they liked the atmosphere and they had or wanted some connection to the people growing their food.

Milestone five was a post season debriefing at the annual 2004 NHFMA meeting. We met our goal of having 30 in attendance. They provided valuable feedback about the program. Overall, the markets were satisfied with the process of the kiosk and scrip system but were disappointed that more food stamp recipients were not using it. They agreed to try the project again in 2005.

Milestone six was changed from a post season debriefing to a mailed written survey (Appendix 1). A survey was mailed to all food vendors, from all three markets, in the spring of 2006. See Appendix 2 for survey questions, results are reported in Section 6. The results reflect that the process worked for the market but the volume of sales from food stamp EBT cards was disappointing. The Enfield market was equipped to absorb the responsibility of conducting EBT transactions, however, the Manchester and Nashua markets were not.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

A how-to manual for farmers’ markets was produced from this project. The manual was printed and distributed to all farmer market managers in June 2008. The manual will also be converted to a PDF file and posted on the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension website. The NHFMA and NH Dept, of Agriculture, Markets and Foods will be invited to link to it from their websites. Team members and other state agricultural leaders will receive a hard copy of the manual including county cooperative extension offices.

Appendix 2 contains copies of some of the informal outreach materials used throughout the project for farmers and food stamp recipients.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The market vendor survey was mailed to 27 food vendors at the three farmers’ markets that participated in the project in 2005. A second mailing was sent to vendors who did not respond the first time. A total of 12 of 27 farmers responded (44.4%). Of those that responded, 7 had food stamps recipients purchase their products using market scrip. Of the 7 that received scrip, they found the process easy to use in terms of accepting the scrip and timeliness of reimbursement from the market manager. The vendor that rated it neutral or slightly less easy to use found the process confusing and saved scrip for several weeks before submitting for reimbursement. Holding scrip for several weeks was something vendors did so that the market managers did not have to write numerous checks for very small values. The average EBT transaction was $10 and it was spent among several vendors at the market.

Characteristics of farmers who responded to the survey:

Mean number of years selling at farmers’ markets: 9.5 years
Represented 5 of 10 New Hampshire counties
Mean number of miles traveled from farm to Manchester market: 35.8 miles
Mean number of mile traveled from farm to Enfield market: 17.3 miles
One vendor of two at Nashua market travels 28 miles to get there.
Foods sold to EBT customers: fruits, vegetables, cider, breads, meat, eggs, honey, maple syrup and jams.
Comments about the project from farmers who responded to the survey:

The survey asked how the project impacted the farmers’ business at the farmers’ market we received four responses:

“It would seem to me that if a food stamp customer has a choice of whether to spend $20 of their benefits at a supermarket or at a farmers’ market; they are going to go where they will get the most food for their money, i.e. the supermarket.”

“I don’t really think it had a huge impact. While it is a good idea for nutrition, I believe the dollars (from USDA) are better spent in making the WIC program more efficient. Getting rid of the paper coupons and having a better redemption program.”

“I think when it catches on people are going to really love this option. I feel it will take a few years for this to happen.”

“Being able to accept food stamps didn’t have a major impact on our sales, but it did enable some people to buy our products who otherwise would be unable to.”

This project had minimal impact on increased sales for farmers at farmers’ markets. The Manchester market was the most successful of the three demonstration markets and only produced $1000 in EBT sales in the best of the two years they participated. New Hampshire’s farmers’ markets are small and the larger ones have 20-25 vendors depending on the time of the season.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable.

Farmer Adoption

We learned from farmers that accepting EBT cards needs to be easy, little or no cost and reimbursements need to be timely. Farmers who are excluded from the WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program would like to be able to accept EBT, however, they have been disappointed by the low response from EBT customers. The Food Stamp Program has very little funding to support outreach to their participants which creates a burden on small markets to promote it without a market manager, an information booth already in place where scrip can be sold or resources to advertise the service. This project planned to reach food stamp recipients through agencies that serve them, flyers in places they frequent and with signage at the markets.

The most effective way food stamp customers told us that they learned that a market accepted EBT cards was from signage at the market. At the Manchester market we set out a sign each week outside our booth announcing its availability. That was the most successful marketing tool we had.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Utilizing a scrip system for food stamp EBT benefits requires a written proposal and permission from USDA. The proposal must go through the EBT manager in each state, sent to the regional USDA Food and Nutrition Service office and then on to Washington, D.C. for approval. While the process is tedious it generated interest from the Boston FNS office and resulted in a conference call in the USDA Northeast Region with farmers, project coordinators and state and federal EBT and food stamp administrators. In 2005 there was interest around the country in trying to solve the issues small farmers and markets have in accepting the EBT card. As project coordinator I received calls from people throughout the United States wanting to learn more about how we set up our program. Our team had a meeting with the New Hampshier Commissioner of Health and Human Services who wanted to see the project go statewide but could not move forward on that scale without more resources.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.