Food Stamp Redemptions at New Hampshire Farmers' Markets
“Food Stamp Redemptions at New Hampshire Farmers’ Markets” is a pilot project designed to test a centralized system at farmers’ markets that allows Food Stamp customers to use their Food Stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to purchase food at three farmers’ markets in New Hampshire. In 1998, the New Hampshire Food Stamp Program implemented an electronic system to administer Food Stamp benefits. This eliminated the former paper coupons and inadvertently excluded vendors at farmers’ markets from accepting the EBT card because the markets did not have the infrastructure to accept them. Food Stamp customers lost access to a source of high quality, nutritious and fresh food in their communities.
This project provides the infrastructure to accept the cards in exchange for market scrip that can be used to purchase food at the markets. The project incorporates participation in the planning, implementation and evaluation process by market managers and vendors to design and operate a system that is both user and vendor friendly. The first two years of the project provides resources for a staff person and equipment for each market and a project manager to coordinate the grant activities. During that time market managers and vendors are expected to work with the coordinator to develop a sustainable plan for continuing this service after the funding cycle. The project provides for the project manager to continue to work with the markets in the third year during the transition to supporting this service independent of UNH Cooperative Extension.
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 benefits. The goals of this project are consistent with the Northeast SARE outcome statement because they increase the profitability for a diverse set of farmers; and will have a positive influence on their communities by increasing the accessibility of healthful products to an additional segment of customers.
Degree of Change: This project will be successful if, within three years, food stamp redemption figures at farmers’ markets exceed $18,000 per year, or $54,000 total revenue over the course of the project. This number is based on the value of the farmers’ market redemptions of food stamps in 1998; the year the EBT card was implemented in New Hampshire. At that time, a combination of thirty-two farm stands/farmers’ market vendors accepted food stamps and redeemed $18, 407, with an average redemption of $575.22 per vendor. We believe that our goal of $18,000 per year is a conservative estimate based on the greater number of farmers participating in farmers’ markets in 2003.
Without Intervention: Farmers lost a source of revenue when the Food Stamp EBT card was implemented in New Hampshire in 1998. Livestock and value added producers are excluded from the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program – administered by the WIC Program – and with more low income customers supporting farmers’ markets in the state there is a significant potential new source of revenue for all farmers.
Seven key milestones were outlined in the proposal for this project. Of these, five were scheduled for completion in 2004. There are three additional activities included in the project; focus groups with Food Stamp customers, the production of a market manual and the design of a market manager mentor program for accepting EBT cards at farmers’ markets. The first milestone was completed prior to notification of the award. An information session about the project was held in February at the New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo in Manchester, New Hampshire. The purpose of the session was to provide information about the project and to recruit markets for the project, if funded. The University of New Hampshire Nutrition Connections Program elected to hold this in advance of notification because the attendance from the agriculture community is generally high and we anticipated having a better turnout as part of that event than holding a separate meeting. In addition, the New Hampshire Farmers’ Market Association, a major collaborator in the project provided time in their workshop schedule and promoted the session. The Project Manager also promoted the session through the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture’s weekly newsletter.
This milestone had mixed success. The session was publicized through the New Hampshire Farmers’ Market Association and through the Farm and Forest Expo brochures and schedule. The Project Manager mailed invitation to all forty-five New Hampshire farmers’ market managers and the goal was to have a minimum of 15 attend. There was a winter storm during the day of the Expo. Five managers attended. The State EBT Manager was unable to participate. The Project Manager presented the information about the project and about the EBT process. Two of the project markets were recruited from that session.
The second milestone was to recruit markets and conduct focus groups at the market growers’ meetings in the spring of 2004. We projected that 25 farmers from 3 pilot markets would attend the meetings. An unanticipated positive outcome of the first milestone was that by the time the SARE award was made there were five markets that were interested in participating. A UNH Cooperative Extension Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program grant supported two additional markets, therefore, five markets in total participated. The markets all operated using the same centralized system but utilizing three different technologies.
The Project Coordinator met with four of the five markets to conduct the focus groups with each market vendor group. One of the non-SARE markets did not have a formal pre-season meeting. Of the three SARE supported markets, 35 vendors participated. These were conducted as informal sessions to obtain information and ideas from the vendors about their concerns about the system and how they viewed their participation. The results of the meetings informed the Project Manager as to how the system would function at individual markets, the resource capacity at each market and the level of interest the vendors had in attracting business from Food Stamp customers. This milestone was successful and important in terms of integrating the project into the existing market structure.
Each of the participating markets is unique in its management and its relationships between the market leadership and vendors. The third milestone was a training component about the food stamp project at the market and it was anticipated that 30 vendors would attend the trainings. Of the three SARE supported markets there was a different approach to training at each market and two types of trainings were held.
Each of the five kiosk operators for the markets was trained on the use of the EBT Point of Sale (POS) terminals by either the EBT contractor for the State or the Project Manager. Of the three SARE markets, one held a formal training for vendors prior to the opening of the market. At another market, the kiosk operator held a training prior to the opening of the market and spoke with each food vendor individually. The third market had three vendors and each was trained individually by the Project Manager. The trainings for the two additional markets were conducted by the market manager at one and the Project Manager at another. Over 35 vendors were trained to accept the market scrip and vendors were provided with a packet of informational materials at the beginning of the season including information about the foods that are allowed to be sold to Food Stamp customers. Some vendors were added to the project during the season as they joined the market. The leadership of the markets, as the holders of the Food Stamp Retailers license, were requires toview the Food Stamp training video that is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. This was a successful milestone.
The fourth milestone entailed conducting focus groups of Food Stamp customers in the spring of 2004. The goal was to conduct at least one focus group of food stamp customers in the communities of each SARE supported market. This milestone was partially met. The award was made in March and the markets opened in June. Due to some unforeseen administrative responsibilities the compressed timeframe did not allow for three focus groups as originally hoped. The Project Manager alerted the Northeast SARE office to this deviation. One focus group with five food stamp participants was conducted. Valuable information was obtained; however, it was not representative of all of the communities where there were participating markets. The Project Manager is scheduling additional focus groups for January 2005. Dietetic interns from the University of New Hampshire Dietetic Internship Program, as part of their research rotation, will assist with recording the focus groups and analyzing the data. The University of New Hampshire Institutional Review Board has approved the application to study human subjects and conduct the focus groups.
The fifth milestone was to hold post season debriefings with 30 farmers who participated in the project. This was a mixed success. A meeting was held in November following the Fall meeting of the New Hampshire Farmers’ Market Association (NHFMA) who hosted and promoted this meeting. The Project Manager also promoted this meeting by sending a letter of invitation to all of the food vendors from the participating markets. The goal was to have at least 30 vendors attend. Of the eleven vendors who attended, the managers from all five markets were present.
The format of the meeting included structured questions designed to review all of the aspects of the project and delineate which parts were the most successful and which needed revision and improvement. The meeting was productive and the information obtained was valuable in terms of planning for next season.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In addition to the three markets that were supported by the SARE grant, two additional markets were supported by the UNH Cooperative Extension Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program. The three SARE supported markets were in the cities of Nashua, Manchester and the town of Sanbornton. At the start of the season Nashua had three vendors, one dropped out of the market mid-season. Manchester is a large market with fifteen eligible food vendors participating and Sanbornton had an additional eleven vendors participating. Of the three SARE funded markets 29 vendors were eligible to accept food stamp scrip. We projected participation by 30 vendors. The two additional markets, however, brought the total of vendors to over 35. Within the SARE markets twelve vendors received scrip from Food Stamp customers.
The two additional markets were in Enfield and Laconia. Laconia had five eligible vendors and Enfield had eight. Of these thirteen vendors, four has sales from Food Stamp customers. We note that the participation rate was low this first year for all markets. The rural markets at Laconia, Enfield, and Sanbornton had one to two customers over the course of the season. The metro markets in Manchester served 62 customers and sold $719 in scrip. Nashua served 38 customers and sold $246 in scrip. After some discussion with the project manager of an EBT project in Massachusetts, these results are consistent with their experience.
The sales projections in the original proposal were based on locating markets in areas where there are higher poverty rates and a high percentage of sales in WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons. While there is some overlap, we found that it did not directly translate to Food Stamp scrip sales. There is also a perception that food costs are higher at the farmers’ markets. The Project Manager conducted an informal price comparison of fruits and vegetables at the markets and the same found in the closest retail food outlet.
In general, most of the produce was competitive with the local retailers, especially when more produce became available in the markets in August. Several commodities such as sweet corn, tomatoes, small fruits and specialty items were priced higher at the farmers’ markets. Four of the markets had a supermarket located within a mile or two of the farmers’ market. Enfield, a rural market, has an independent grocer in town with limited options for fresh produce. The nearest supermarket to Enfield is five to seven miles away. The Enfield farmers’ market, however, is within walking distance of low income housing.
The turnouts for the post season participatory vendor meetings were lower than expected and the NHFMA reported that this is a typical turnout for meetings with farmers. In the future we may need to request time at the individual market’s post season meeting in order to obtain additional vendor input. In an attempt to gain additional insights from the vendors, the Project Manager attended Manchester’s post season market meeting and obtained the information.
Nutrition and gardening demos are activities included in the project, but not formal milestones. Each market had two nutrition demo days where UNH Nutrition Connections staff brought food samples made with produce from the markets, recipes and nutrition materials. At the SARE markets they were joined by UNH Master Gardeners who also had displays about gardening and food production. These activities were successful and are planned again for 2005.
The success of the first year is measured by having the project implemented in a short period of time with the support and collaboration of all of the market managers, the NHFMA, UNH Cooperative Extension Agricultural Educators and Nutrition Connections staff, the New Hampshire EBT office, the state EBT contractor, the New Hampshire Office of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the regional Food and Nutrition Service Office in Boston and the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture. The project did not meet it’s performance target for sales and while we thought that this target was a conservative estimate, although it is feasible, it will not likely be reached in the first three years of operation. The performance target for farmer participation was achieved and their overall support is encouraging.
Of the many lessons learned this season is the need to find an effective means to promote the project. Over seventy agencies in the five towns where the markets are located were contacted through mailings in an effort to promote the project. In addition, the Project Manager made personal visits or telephone contact explaining the project and dropping off flyers. Each community had some print, radio or local cable television coverage. Flyers were posted in local libraries, laundromats, emergency food centers, Good Will stores, banks, town halls and other places where the Food Stamp population is likely to use services. Most Food Stamp participants found out about the project because they were already at the market and saw the signs.
The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture helped to promote the project through their weekly newsletter. The Smart Choices newsletter, mailed to all Food Stamp households in New Hampshire, promotes the markets. Due to late approval for the use of scrip at the markets from the Boston office, promotion about the use of scrip at the markets could only be listed in the September issue. The New Hampshire Food Bank, located in Manchester, distributed flyers about the project to their agencies and to the local housing authority in the neighborhood of the that market.
Although the volume of scrip sales was low the first year participants said they were pleased that they could use their EBT card at the market. The most frequently purchased foods were fruits and vegetables, venison, eggs, breads and pies, and goat cheese. There were a few sales of jam and jelly.
Farmers participated and benefit from the first year operation of this project. They offered constructive suggestions throughout the season and welcomed the activity as part of their markets. They anticipated higher sales of scrip, but are willing to try it again next season. Four of the five markets expressed a willingness to work on solutions with the Project Manager to sustain the service for their markets after the second season.
As a follow up to the first year of this project the Director of the NHFMA initiated discussions with the New Hampshire Commissioner of Health and Human Services who is interested in seeing all farmers’ markets in the state accept the Food Stamp EBT card. He met with us and his staff to begin researching cost effective, new technology options that would enable all food vendors at each of the markets to accept the EBT card. As a result of that meeting the Project Manager and the Director of the NHFMA met with the Director of the United States Department of Agriculture Regional Food and Nutrition Service in Boston to discuss plans to pursue the technology. The Project Manager also had the opportunity at that meeting to present some institutional barriers for farmers’ markets that are interested in accepting the EBT card. They agreed to research these barriers and respond to our questions. Their responses will be important to the sustainability of this project. The Project Manager will continue to work on this development with the NHFMA as a separate activity from this project.