Access to more fruits and veggies for food stamp customers

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With recent light shed on “food deserts” — or neighborhoods without access to quality healthy foods — a new initiative shows that partnering with local farmers can help both sides of the deal.

By making it easier for farmer’s market vendors to accept payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — formerly known as the food stamp program — fresh produce sales increased by over one-third among SNAP customers.

This counters some critics’ opinions that even if fresh fruits and vegetables are made available in underserved communities, people won’t purchase them because of poor eating habits.

“I’ve heard that, but I really think that people want good food and will eat it,” says Dr. Allison E. Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at The Food Trust, and co-investigator of the study that uncovered these findings.

Dr. Alison Buttenheim, the other co-investigator, agrees.

“Our results might surprise people who think that healthy eating is all about individual choices and behavior,” she says. “Our study showed that a very simple intervention — that is, simply placing a card swipe machine for SNAP cards at each vendor at a farmers’ market — increased sales to SNAP participants by 38 percent.”

Buttenheim says this shows that how people purchase foods is just as important as their individual preferences and tastes.

In the study, published today in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program and The Food Trust analyzed sales data at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market for four years, beginning 17 months before the pilot project and ending 22 months afterwards.

Typically, each market vendor has to rent wireless SNAP point-of-sale machines, pay for wireless service and pay heavy transaction fees. This is in contrast to traditional store owners, who receive machines for free from the USDA Food and Nutrition Services and use a land line.

Because many local farmers cannot absorb such high costs, market managers have just one point-of-sale machine. SNAP beneficiaries have two options: buy tokens to exchange for produce, but they cannot receive change; or, receive paper receipts from each vendor and present it to the market’s one machine where each purchase is swiped from the SNAP card individually.

“We hope that our study will move the conversation forward at the local, state and national level to address what we see as an unfair advantage for bricks-and-mortar stores serving SNAP customers,” says Buttenheim.

The authors say the benefits of this initiative isn’t limited to SNAP customers.

“Farmers markets let you meet your farmer,” Dr. Karpyn says. “It’s one of the few places left where you can ask questions about your food. [They are] great places for all income residents to shop.”

A few cities now offer added benefits to SNAP customers who shop at farmer’s markets. In Philadelphia, for example, for every $5 of SNAP benefits spent at participating farmer’s markets, the customer receives an additional $2 toward purchases.

But, in order to remain in business, farmer’s markets must make a profit. Increasing sales and attracting more customers using the point-of-sale machines is “good news for the farmer and the market as a whole,” Buttenheim says.

According to the report, one of two things need to happen before individual farmers can access point-of-sale machines. Either policymakers allocate funds to the project or technology, or technological advances yield more affordable machines.

“The next time you visit your local farmers’ market, be sure to ask about how SNAP participants make their purchases, and if the system works well for participants and vendors alike,” Buttenheim urges. “Get involved with your local market sponsor to make the farmers’ market accessible to all food consumers. Everyone wins that way.”

Follow Dr. Ty on Twitter at @doctorty