Access to fresh, healthy, tasty local foods has recently increased for people living in three Memphis communities. The South Memphis Farmers Market, Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, and Urban Farms Farmers Market (in Binghampton) now have the capability of accepting SNAP/EBT (also known as food stamps).
Market-goers simply swipe their benefit cards and debit the amount they would like to spend from their accounts. They are given wooden tokens worth $1 each, which they are able to exchange dollar for dollar for edible goods sold by vendors. Vendors, in turn, redeem the tokens for the appropriate amount of cash. It's a great system that keeps things easy and doesn't require vendors to have individual card machines. The program makes accessible farmers markets and the fresh, healthy and locally grown produce they sell to those who may not typically shop at farmers markets. This is useful because market-goers are no longer required to use cash they might need for other expenses. It's also great in terms of health benefits for marginalized populations who suffer disproportionately from nutrition-related illnesses because of a lack of access to healthy foods.
To get a better idea of what the program is all about, I spoke with Josephine Williams on my most recent trip to the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market. Josephine is a Cooper-Young market vendor and coordinator of Grow Memphis, a community-based collaborative effort between Memphis neighborhoods and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center that focuses on urban gardens and community development.
The SNAP program is in its infancy here in Memphis and began only one week ago (July 2). Although there are multiple farmers markets in the Memphis metropolitan area, the aforementioned three are the only ones offering the program so far. "I think that some of the other markets are just waiting to see how it works out, and will hopefully be interested in doing it in the future" says Josephine. "But it does take a lot of work to do it. It costs money, and it takes administration, so it's a big commitment."
She notes that these three markets are particularly interested in food access as a social justice issue and were each started with the goal of serving local communities through outreach and food access in mind. She doesn't think that the issue of food access is what necessarily draws vendors to the market, but the potential of a good venue to sell produce. However, she adds, "simply by taking food stamps, they are making the effort to get more people to the market because they're trying to make the market more accessible to those who may not come and shop here." As a side note, I have not noticed any sort of food access rhetoric from the Memphis Farmers Market located in the downtown area, which, based on my observations, tends to attract clientele of greater financial means who are interested in the market for its eco-chic as well as the buy local movement.
A market-goer samples some delicious Wolf River creamed cinnamon honey
In terms of the financial investment involved, each market is currently renting the machines needed to swipe SNAP cards, which runs between $40 and $80 a month. There are also administration costs, including staff time for operating the program and writing weekly vendor checks. There has not been much publicity about the new program yet because the markets want to work out all the kinks before spreading the word. However, Urban Farms has been sharing the good news with market patrons via its newsletter and on market days.
Josephine says that so far there has been a positive response from both market vendors and patrons. She mentioned that the South Memphis market was off to a good start and has brought in about $300 in SNAP on its best day. Later this summer, the markets will be introducing an incentive program that will give market-goers an extra $10 if they withdraw $10 from their SNAP cards to use at the market. Josephine believes the bonus program as well as increased advertising will draw more customers to the markets. She foresees the acceptance of SNAP benefits to be a benefit for farmers/vendors as well, who will see increased sales due to the increase in shoppers. "Once we start doing the bonus program, it’s going to get more money flowing through the market, and that benefits farmers. So I hope that it’s going to be an added benefit for the farmers who choose to go to those markets."
The machines used to swipe SNAP cards also allow vendors to accept credit and debit cards, which broadens the forms of payment that can be used to purchase goods and may lead to an increase in sales.
[Author's note: It is my goal to speak with some market-goers who use SNAP benefits so I can get their perspective on this new program. Look for part II of this post some time in the near future.]