Portal's shutdown puts farmers market trips in jeopardy for SNAP recipients

The Baltimore Sun

Shoppers may no longer be able to use government assistance to buy food at 18 Maryland farmers markets — including the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar — as of the end of this month.

Novo Dia Group, the vendor that services software that some markets use to charge the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will cease supporting it as of July 31. Novo Dia plans to shut down its Mobile Market+ Portal on July 31, and the future of the company is still up in the air, President Josh Wiles said Friday.

That means 1,700 farmers markets nationwide — including those 18 in Maryland — would need to find a new way to swipe SNAP cards or stop accepting business from people who use them.

“We are continuing to work with folks to try and find a solution to avoid any service interruption to our customers,” Wiles said. “That’s what our focus is on, to try and come up with a solution and do it before were forced to suspend operations.”

Software to process SNAP payments has heavy security requirements to try to prevent fraud, which are expensive to maintain. The transactions are typically for small amounts of money. And Wiles said a way to scale his business up was looking unlikely after a federal decision to work with another company on larger projects.

Meanwhile, local farmers markets are grappling with the news.

“We are trying our hardest not to alarm SNAP recipients yet because we’re hoping that there will be a solution before the 31st,” said Amy Crone, executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association. “Particularly at the height of the season, when all this wonderful produce is coming in, it would be a shame if this would come to pass because of decisions that were made by the federal government.”

Eighteen of 24 farmers markets in Maryland that take SNAP benefits use Novo Dia Group’s system, Crone said. The other six, including the Waverly market on 32nd Street, use different systems and will not be affected.

Using SNAP benefits at farmers markets is a boon for recipients, who can access more produce that is hard to come by in areas with few grocery stores known as food deserts, said Michael J. Wilson, director of the Baltimore-based organization Maryland Hunger Solutions.

It also means some extra income for local farmers, Wilson said.

“It’s a partial answer for the food deserts problem,” Wilson said.

Total SNAP spending in Maryland neared $1 billion in 2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and has reached $462 million in 2018.

“We’re talking lots and lots of money. This is not peanuts,” Wilson said. “To the extent that we can target those dollars, not just at grocery stores but at farmers markets, that’s great for the local economy.”

Money spent at farmers markets has accounted for a small slice of that spending, though it has risen from $15,113 in 2010 to $90,050 in 2017, according to the Maryland Farmers Market Association.

Recipients can also tap into a program called Maryland Market Money, run by the Maryland Farmers Market Association, to get tokens they can spend like cash on farmers market produce and stretch their dollar further, Wilson said. He advocated for increased state spending of the program so recipients do not have to rely as much on federal dollars.

At Cat's Paw Organic Farm in Union Bridge, Rudolf Medicus has been picking tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and summer greens. He’s also preparing for fall’s harvest of dark green vegetables — kale, broccoli and arugula, much of which he will haul to farmers markets.

“It seems a shame where in the very city that there’s such a food desert the program can be interrupted by such a nuisance,” Medicus said.

Medicus said he doesn’t come across SNAP cards often, but said he does have customers pay with benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, or the federal Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. Seniors come to him with $5 paper vouchers he later has to cash in. But they are going digital, and Medicus said he worries that will cause disruptions at those programs, too.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°