Farmers' market to accept SNAP benefits
The Block Island Farmers’ Market is taking a big step forward: the market was recently approved by the federal government to accept SNAP benefits and will be the first venue on the island to do so.
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is the federal government’s initiative to aid struggling individuals and families in purchasing food. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health and Human Services’ website, most households qualify if their annual income is less than 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Poverty level for a family of four is $23,850.
According to Market Coordinator Dorrie Napoleone, approximately 20 families on the island are SNAP eligible. Town Councilor Chris Warfel approached Napoleone about the market’s acceptance of benefits about a year and a half ago. Certain foods that fall under the SNAP guidelines will be sold at the Farmers’ Market by a variety of vendors.
When asked why he felt it was important to introduce SNAP to the island, Warfel said, “We’re the only town in the state without that program in our borders… it didn’t make sense not to have it here.”
Napoleone echoed Warfel’s sentiments.
“We are a very small community and one that thrives by the generosity and friendship of the people that live here,” Napoleone said. “It just seemed like making sure that all members of the community had access to the produce and fresh food items at the Farmers’ Market was the natural thing to do, and in the true spirit of the Farmers’ Market.”
In order to receive approval from the federal government, the market had to apply for nonprofit status. Registration with the United States Department of Agriculture was required, too. Napoleone also had to figure out how to process transactions without computers or electricity. As she said, the vendors are literally in the middle of a park or a parking lot.
To solve this problem, Napoleone is currently working with a pilot program, MarketLink, to receive equipment that can process EBT cards. MarketLink’s website states that the program was developed as a response to the USDA’s 2013 goal of increasing SNAP acceptance at farmers’ markets nationwide.
MarketLink will provide the market with an iPhone specifically equipped to work compatibly with the SNAP program. Napoleone said she expects the equipment to arrive within the next month.
With the integration of this new technology, SNAP customers will be able to bring their cards to an iPhone station, where they will be swiped. The customer determines how much they would like to spend, and that amount is electronically transferred into the market’s account. The customer will then receive vouchers/market currency to purchase eligible products. After all sales, vendors will hand in any vouchers they received and will be reimbursed from the market’s account.
Napoleone said that she is unsure as to how many customers will take advantage of the new initiative, but that she will instruct vendors as to eligible SNAP items. Rather than having a specific SNAP booth, customers will be able to shop around and select their own items. However, SNAP benefits can be used only to purchase produce, meats, breads, dairy and food-bearing plants; alcohol, household items, prepared and/or hot foods and vitamins are ineligible. At the farmers’ market, crafts and other such items will be ineligible as well. In essence, benefits can be used only for non-prepared, whole foods.
Warfel and Napoleone both said that while SNAP acceptance will only apply during the market’s season, and will therefore not solve the issue of year-round assistance, it’s a step in the right direction.
“This is an option,” Warfel said. “Before then, we had no options.”
“It’s a start,” Napoleone said. “The hope is that other establishments will follow.”