Friday, March 25, 2011

SNAP/EBT at the Farmers Market?

This is a guide to offering SNAP benefit access at your farmers market. It was created by Ann Fugate. Many thanks to her.

Example signage at a farmers market

Vendors at farmers markets are eligible to be approved to take SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits – formerly called food stamps. However, these benefits are done by Electronic Benefits transfer, like credit cards. Unless the vendor has power and phone hookups, or has wireless equipment, being individually approved may not be feasible. Moreover, being the only or one of few vendors at a market who take SNAP limits the number of potential customers who may use the service.

Nationwide, more markets are establishing market-wide SNAP programs in which a number of vendors participate and which the market itself promotes. These programs offer many benefits: recipients get the benefit of fresh, wholesome food; costs are shared among the vendors; and vendors get to increase their sales through new customers. What does it take?

APPROVAL BY MARKET VENDORS: Market vendors must want the program for it to work. If you market now takes WIC or Senior Farmers Market coupons, vendors are used to serving ‘benefit’ customers and may be more willing to consider SNAP. A simple explanation of what the vendor must do and the benefits – i.e. additional sales – may be enough.

HOW A MARKET-WIDE SYSTEM WORKS: The market itself is the approved SNAP vendor. It is responsible for food stamp ‘sales’: What is ‘sold’ is some kind of scrip (coupons to tokens) that the customer uses to buy food from individual vendors. Each coupon or token ‘sale’ is transmitted to the state office, which electronically sends payment to your bank account (usually within one or two days). Later the vendor redeems the coupons or tokens with the market for money.

Market support for the proGRAM: It’s not enough to apply and get approved; you must run the program once it is established. This requires:

· Method to connect to EBT program (phone and power or wireless equipment)

· Market bank account

· A SNAP table or booth

· Staff for the table or booth

· Tokens or coupons

· Advertising and market signs

· Recruitment and training of market vendors

· Monitoring/oversight

· System for redeeming coupons/tokens and paying vendors, preparing reports, etc.

· Funds to support these efforts

IS IT WORTH IT? Only your market’s experience can tell you. In 2009 Ohio farmers markets in their first year of EBT averaged only $500-$1000 in total sales. But Athens Farmers Market has more than triples our sales since our first year and the amount is still growing. More importantly, EBT benefits allow low-income families to benefit from the lower prices and fresher quality of local products: that’s the real benefit.

1. CONNECTING TO THE EBT PROGRAM: SNAP benefits are transferred electronically like credit cards. Indeed you can use credit card equipment for SNAP – your local grocery store probably does this now. However, farmers markets are different – most are outside, few have power and phone outlets. How can you connect?

Manual Transactions: The least expensive method is to get approval from the state to do only manual transactions. You will need at least a cell phone for this. For each customer, you fill out a paper form and call the state for an approval number before issuing the coupons or tokens. Later you transmit the ‘sales’ using an EBT machine from home or office. Cheap, but slow.

EBT using state provided equipment: The state will provide you with a machine for transmitting SNAP purchases. It is small (about 6x12 inches) and pretty effective. It transmits, prints receipts and totals daily sales. You must have an electrical outlet and a phone hookup to use the system. We had electricity nearby buy had to have the phone company install a line. This is easily done if you are near phone lines and costs $100-$200. What you get is a box where you plug in the phone cord you buy Radio Shack or WW to your EBT machine. The phone line will cost you $30/month (be sure to have it programmed to not accept long distance calls because that box will be available to whomever walks by!). You will need a cell phone handy for emergencies.

You don’t have to have your SNAP setup right at the market. If there is a convenient office or shop nearby, you may be able to use that – you will need good signage to direct customers. It must be available during market hours. Cheap if you can make the connections; fast and effective.

EBT using your own equipment: You can rent or purchase equipment from a commercial company and use a ‘merchant account’ to process sales. The advantages of this approach are that you can get wireless equipment if you want and you can set up and account to also take credit cards (can’t use state equipment for this). Several markets take credit cards and, if your clientele loves plastic, it can bring in extra sales. The downside is cost: equipment ranges from $300-$1000, depending on your system and there are monthly transmission and account fees. The cheapest I found (on the internet) for these were $245 for equipment plus 2.2% plus 25 cents for each transaction (minimum $15/month) plus $8 monthly statement fee plus phone charges. Our market hasn’t done this, so I recommend you contact a local business person or another market to get good advice.

2. MARKET BANK ACCOUNT: You need a bank account for your SNAP ‘income’. You can use your regular market account, or set up a separate one just for food stamps. You will need an employer identification number or a social security number for this account.

3. SNAP TABLE OR BOOTH: - and a place to store this stuff. You will need a table and chairs, and a canopy or tent is helpful to protect equipment and supplies from the weather. A good-sized box is necessary to store the EBT machine, phone/power cords, paper supplies (transaction forms, nutrition information, instructions to customers and staff, etc.) AND you need to transport, setup and take down all this stuff every market. If you use a site away from the market for sales, it is helpful to have a SNAP information table at the market. You market manager’s table or booth may be a good choice.

Running the SNAP table

4. STAFFING: There are basically four methods: Your own market staff (manager), paid outside help, market members/vendors or volunteers.

Manager: This will work if your manager is willing and has the time. Our single manager is far too busy getting vendors set up and monitoring activity to man the booth. Someone has to man the SNAP table well before the market opens.

Paid outside help: Several folks each willing to work one or two markets a month are usually pretty easy to find. We recruited folks from our local food ventures programs, vendor families, interested college students and market customers. You must have a sound training program to get each person ready to deal with customers and problems: you want folks who like people and are willing to talk with them. You also need to have written instructions for everything for staff and customers – things will go wrong, so have an emergency plan. In addition, you will need money to pay them and a system for employing these folks, including handling withholding taxes, etc. In lieu of money, you might consider recruiting regular customers and paying them in gift certificates to the market!

An alternative is to use a vendor as your staff: after initially using paid outside help, we had a vendor volunteer to do this. He takes responsibility for the equipment, sets up the machinery at his booth and processes all the transactions along with his regular business. He’s been doing it long enough now that he knows many of the customers, can answer questions really well, solves all the little glitches that come up and enjoys himself! He didn’t initially take SNAP, but now does, so someone checks his numbers very carefully. Some hints: don’t use an extremely busy vendor and pick someone who likes to talk to customers. You should also rotate the duty among your vendors.

Volunteers: If you have a group willing to take on the SNAP table, you are in luck! “Friends of the market”, church groups, senior citizens, sororities/fraternities, etc. are all likely groups. But you need to train, monitor and support (lots of thank yous) to keep them participating.

The market manager or whoever is running the program needs to keep a schedule of staffing for the booth and to verify that folks will be on duty as needed. Remember, these folks are handling coupons or tokens that have money value, so be judicious.

5. TOKENS OR COUPONS: You need to give the SNAP customer something he/she can use as money at the market in exchange for the charge to his account. Generally these are either paper coupons (scrip) or some type of plastic, metal or wooden tokens. Coupons are cheap but take time; tokens have a high initial cost but are simple to use.

Paper coupons are generally just used once. The market prints the coupons, marking them in some way to prevent counterfeiting. Customers use them that day for purchases and vendors return them the same day for payment. Colored or printed paper, special symbols, dating and numbering all help to prevent fakes; remember, if the coupon is not distinctive and not returned promptly, either a customer or vendor could take it home and fake copies.

Example voucher

Example voucher

Tokens are made of metal, plastic or wood; there are several companies on line where you can order them with your own design. Tokens direct in Cincinnati offers 5000 metal tokens with your market information for about $1000 – half the price is for the die setup so additional orders are not as expensive. High initial cost but they’re hard to fake and last a long time (some do disappear down the couch cushions and under the floor mats of customers and vendors!).

You cannot give change for SNAP purchases, so a $1 token is good. If you are also taking credit cards, you should get a different size, color and denomination for these. Since you can give change for credit card purchases, a $5 denomination is good.

6. SIGNS AND ADVERTISING: You need to tell customers where to get the tokens or coupons. We have a 6 foot banner that hangs at the table that simply says “TOKENS HERE” in case we expand to take credit cards and to minimize any ‘poor folks’ image. We distributed flyers to congregate meal sites, clinics, used clothing programs and churches. We got articles in our two local newspapers. In addition, we included “We take food stamps” on all ads. But more importantly, we have the help of our County Dept. of Jobs and Family Services, which includes market information on their regular radio spots and in communications with their clients. Their help has, I think, been more useful than anything we have done ourselves.

Example of advertising

7. VENDOR RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING: If your market is like ours, it’s hard to get the attention of vendors when they are getting ready to sell. Your recruitment and training programs need to be short and sweet. A verbal explanation accompanied by a brief flyer can be enough for most vendors. Be prepared to address ‘poor folk’ and bureaucracy issues. It isn’t necessary that all vendors participate. We found that some vendors only signed up when they saw their neighbors getting those gold tokens. Explain:

· This is additional income from customers who can’t shop at the market now.

· The vendor’s agreement is with the market, not state or federal offices. vendors do not have to report anything to outside agencies.

· Vendors need only read, understand and sign a simple agreement with the market that they comply with the rules. (Have the agreement there).

· Almost all foods are eligible; only eat-at-market items can’t be sold. This means jams, meats, baked goods and other items excluded from WIC or Senior Coupons are eligible – and lots of WIC and Senior Coupon folks also get SNAP.

· What the schedule and process for redeeming coupons or tokens will be.

· The ‘We accept food stamp benefits’ sign should be displayed to attract customers.

8. VENDOR/MARKET AGREEMENT: A one-page agreement spelling out that the vendor will abide by the program rules (give them a copy), understands that the market will be monitoring usage, and the redemption schedule is sufficient. Keep the signed agreements for your records.

9. MONITORING/OVERSIGHT: The market manager or an officer should monitor SNAP activity at the market, making sure that customers are treated fairly and that vendors understand and abide by the rules. Watch for unusual redemptions – too many tokens from small vendors, etc. – to spot possible violations. State and federal officials may visit your market and, if an infraction is found, the entire market may be banned from participation.

10. SYSTEM FOR REDEEMING COUPONS AND PAYING VENDORS AND REPORTING: The EBT system charges the customer’s account and transfers the funds to your bank electronically. Reimbursement is prompt – one or two days, so you can have a quick redemption system if you wish. Initially we visited vendors monthly to collect tokens, issue a receipt, which was given to our treasurer who wrote checks to each vendor. We found this cumbersome: not all vendors are present or are ready, the manager gets called away, etc. We now have vendors bring the tokens or coupons to the SNAP booth, where they get a receipt for their tokens. The treasurer then issues each vendor a check. You may want to reimburse in cash, or write checks at the market, or whatever works for you. However, do not have the same person who accepts the tokens from the vendor issue the cash payment or check – you need to use good money management principles! One market (New Orleans) collects tokens on the day monthly stall fees are due and encourages vendors to use the tokens to pay all or part of those fees.

The market must complete monthly and annual reports of SNAP activity for the state. These are usually pretty simple and all of the ‘sales’ information can be gotten from the EBT machine. If you use a manual system, your receipts will contain the necessary information. Coupon or token redemption figures must come from your market records.

11. FUNDING: Unfortunately there is limited funding to pay for this and you can’t charge food stamp recipients. You will have to find funding either from the market vendors, community agencies and/or grants. Some possible sources are community foundations, churches, and ‘friends of the market’ groups. Your city or county government may be willing to help. We got start-up costs from a community economic development organization, and our Department of Jobs and Family Services supports ongoing costs with a SNAP Outreach contract. How much?

Start Up

Tokens - $900

Table, chairs, banner, etc. - $400

Special Advertising - $100

Phone hook-up and trouble shooting - $150


Phone - $30/month

Staffing - $40/market day – includes benefits and accounting costs. In addition there is manager work (training, maintaining schedules, preparing reports) and treasurer requirements (maintaining employment records, reimbursing for tokens, monitoring financial reports) that take time.

If you can use paper coupons, get volunteer help, or a free phone line, your costs will be less.

If you decide to also take credit cards, the typical way markets pay for this service (remember, there are fixed and per-transaction costs for this service but not for SNAP) is to charge the credit card customer directly. That is, something like $5 in tokens costs the customer $6. You will need to calculate the cost for your situation.

This document was created by Ann Fugate. It can be found on the WesMonTy RC&D blog at:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2010 Buy Fresh Buy Local West Virginia Chapter Highlights

These are the Chapter Highlights from Buy Fresh Buy Local West Virginia. Their great work from 2010 also highlights the strong partnership between WesMonTy RC&D and Buy Fresh Buy Local West Virginia. Enjoy!

2010 Chapter Highlights:

· Jan-March. BFBL Committee met at the WV Small Farm Conference. BFBLWV set up a display & hosted a table for 2 ½ days while there, signing up farmers market BFBLWV partners & other members during the BFBLWV-organized Winter Blues Farmers Market. BFBLWV recruited new steering committee members. Created BFBLWV Facebook page; as of early 2011, we have 500 fans! BFBLWV fan donated the purchase of books, The Locavore Way to sell as a fundraiser for BFBLWV chapter.

· Spring: Thanks to WV State University Extension sponsor donation, BFBLWV was able to continue work on the website. With grant funds, one of the non-profit arms of the NRCS, WesMonTy RC&D conducted a BFBLWV membership drive aimed at farmers markets in their region. At least 5 new markets joined as a result; their membership was underwritten by WesMonTy RC&D.

· Summer & Fall: BFBLWV continued to partner with WesMonTy District RC&D, who wrote a grant to place a poster in their district schools to read out to children, promoting fresh produce available at local farmers markets. The poster features the BFBLWV chapter logo and contains a space for each school to write in the location of the closest farmers market. Posters were hand distributed in Spring 2011 to each food partner, to coincide with the opening of farmer’s markets and to maximize impact. Parent group WVFMA formalized BFBLWV project as one of 7 standing organization committees.

· Sept: Sent Savanna Lyons, new WVFMA BoD member, to the BFBL National Gathering. Sept 27th: Second annual Celebration of Local Food in Berkeley Springs, WV, was a big success with over 100 people coming out to enjoy great local food and music despite the torrential downpour of rain.

· As of March 2011, 14 current Supporters, 30 current Partners latter broken down as follows: 5 restaurants; 19 Farmers Markets; 4 On-Farm Market; 12 farmers; Sponsors (Wes-Mon-Ty RC&D, WV Department of Agriculture, WVU Extension Service, West Virginia State University Extension Service; Flying Ewe Farm. WVFMA parent group prepared detailed materials to request technical assistance from WesMonTy RC&D for the Buy Fresh Buy Local WV project which was approved by their BoD.

Friday, March 18, 2011

State-wide Farmers Market EBT Demonstration.

Many farmers in West Virginia lack the financial resources to implement conservation practices. By increasing the access to farmers markets for SNAP participants state wide, we can increase the amount of business available to West Virginia farmers. In West Virginia consumers receive $314 million in SNAP benefits to purchase food. Currently, a very minimal portion of this is spent on local products. Increasing the amount of SNAP benefits that farmers can access has the potential to greatly increase their income, and the easiest way for farmers to access these markets is through the local farmers market.

The first state-wide demonstration of EBT (SNAP Benefits) at a farmers market in West Virginia took place on February 17th, 2011. This was the first time the annual West Virginia Farmers Market Association’s Winter Blues Farmers Market featured this service. It was put together in partnership with WesMonTy RC&D, West Virginia Farmers Market Association, and the South Morgantown Farmers Market. Lesa Gay, the market manager of the South Morgantown Farmers Market donated the use of the EBT machine for this event.

This event was designed with simplicity in mind to create a positive experience for farmers who are new to the experience of EBT. We used the voucher system for the market. We had a table set up in a corner where the EBT machine was. Customers could come over to the table and swipe their EBT or credit card for any amount and receive vouchers in return. The vouchers came in $1 and $10 denominations. These vouchers were used in lieu of cash at every vendor. In order to distinguish between EBT and Credit vouchers, we simply punched a hole in the EBT vouchers over a SNAP marking. This was important because the EBT vouchers were unable to be redeemed for cash, whereas the credit vouchers can be.

Each vendor was briefed on the vouchers and received a receipt slip inside a ziplock bag. At the end of the night, the vendors added up their vouchers and placed them in the bag for redemption. The vendors then turned them in to the staff at the voucher table and had a check printed up there for them. Many of the vendors commented on the ease of using the vouchers.

The project was very successful. The table did a total of $1,142 in redemption, with $131 of that as SNAP benefits! That means nearly 10% of electronic transactions were SNAP benefits!

This is important for several reasons. First, it allowed consumers to purchase more than they may have originally intended by providing them with a way to use their credit, debit or EBT cards. Secondly, that is $1,142 that may not have been spent otherwise. By providing another opportunity for consumers to purchase items, the total purchase amounts were increased. Because the farmers received their money at the end of the night, it reduces the turn-around time and gave them a positive impression of EBT at the farmers market.

The income generated at the market is more money that these producers can use toward implementing NRCS conservation programs such as EQIP high tunnel, AMA and the Organic Initiative. This is an example of implementation of USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen A. Merrigan’s January 21, 2011 bulletin encouraging Harnessing USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Programs to Support Local and Regional Food Systems (

Friday, March 4, 2011

Trying Something New Version 3

The third and final video of the Trying Something New trilogy of farmers market promotional videos. Filmed by Joel Wolpert for the WesMonTy RC&D with funds from the USDA AMS Farmers Market Promotion Program Grant. Music performed by Don Olson of Blue Rock Farms (organic blueberries and maple syrup). Narrators: Gracie & Lexie Morici, Jasper Clark & Eli Bolyard.

Trying Something New, v3 from WesMonTy RC&D on Vimeo.