In Baltimore City, 1 in 8 families with young children are "food insecure," and 20 percent of all residents live in poverty. More than half a million Marylanders get help affording food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In fact, SNAP, or what we used to call food stamps, enrolled 45 million people nationwide this year, a leap from 25 million in 2008.
Shouldn't SNAP participants in Baltimore — or other cities — be able to spend their SNAP dollars on nutritious, locally produced food?
We have a proposal that benefits both financially strapped consumers who depend on SNAP and small-scale Maryland farmers: Supply farmers markets with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) machines so that people can spend their SNAP dollars at those markets.
This could be put into motion through the new Farm Bill, which is being written now. We are looking for strong action from the Agriculture Committee leadership and the supercommittee as they make funding decisions in the next month. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland sits on the supercommittee, and his decisions vis-à-vis the Farm Bill affect all of Maryland and the U.S.
Right now, it's impossible for consumers to redeem SNAP dollars at many farmers' markets. This is because of a "digital divide" that began in 1993, when food stamps started transitioning from a paper-coupon system to an electronic "Independence" card that functions like a debit card. The transition has worked out well for food retailers who are equipped with EBT machines, electricity and land lines — but it has left most farmers markets behind.
Perhaps most disheartening about the digital divide is that the USDA and state agencies provided EBT equipment, for free, to convenience stores and liquor stores, while providing almost no funding for farmers markets to purchase the same. The USDA should treat farmers markets the same way as other food retailers, by providing the equipment necessary for them to serve SNAP participants.
What would it cost to supply farmers markets with EBT equipment? Not a whole lot. The USDA estimates that the cost of getting EBT equipment into every U.S. farmers market that lacks it would be about $4.4 million. Considering the 2008 Farm Bill budget was about $283 billion, providing EBT at all farmers markets would represent a minuscule fraction of the budget: 0.0014 percent. EBT machines, which cost about $1,225 purchased individually, could cost less than $500 if purchased in bulk.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture has counted 137 farmers markets in Maryland, and only 11 of those are equipped with the EBT machines required to take SNAP dollars. In Baltimore, 45 percent of the EBT machines at farmers markets are in neighborhoods considered food deserts (despite the presence of farmers markets); more farmers markets, city and statewide, would like access to EBT but do not have sufficient funds.
Common sense favors our proposal. Some of the $64 billion SNAP budget should go to small-scale Maryland farmers who sell at farmers markets — and low-income consumers stand to benefit from being able to buy nutritious, locally produced food.
One last thing regarding the EBT program: Just as food stamps went digital, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program is moving to an electronic platform, too. If we invest in EBT equipment now, farmers markets will be able to make the transition to support WIC benefits as well, without any loss in customers or revenue.
If Mr. Van Hollen can influence his colleagues to secure funding to allow farmers markets to serve SNAP families, he and his colleagues will help out both Maryland's small-scale farmers and the growing number of low-income consumers who will find it easier to purchase local, healthy food at farmers markets.
Tom Albright (email@example.com), a longtime Maryland farmer with family-run Albright Farms, has been selling at the Baltimore Farmers' Market since 1979 and was able to accept food stamps until the program went digital. Holly Freishtat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Baltimore's food policy director in the Office of Sustainability, Department of Planning. Dr. Robert S. Lawrence (email@example.com) is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.