Across the country, farmers markets have become key actors in a burgeoning “food access” movement. The concept of “food access” builds on long-held goals such as reducing hunger, building community food security, promoting public health, advocating for food justice, and/or supporting local agriculture. While terms such as “food security” broadened the focus from calories to the quality, desirability, and consistency of family diets, the term “food access” also considers where people are able to shop and how they can get there. Food access acknowledges that many neighborhoods or towns don’t have grocery stores with fresh, healthy foods that are affordable and/or within geographic reach of low income families. In this way, food access programs seek to address both economic and physical barriers to a healthy diet that low-income people face.
Farmers markets are especially well suited to their role in the food access movement because they can provide a ready-made solution for places that lack brick-and-mortar grocery stores and other appropriate retail food outlets. Albeit on a seasonal basis, farmers markets are renowned for transforming parking lots, parks, or main streets into vibrant places of community-based commerce. In addition, farmers markets have the flexibility to design their vendor and product mix to meet the food preferences of different cultures.
Despite long-standing critiques as being expensive and catering to elite shoppers, farmers markets play a specific role in implementing two federal nutrition assistance or food access programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) are designed to provide individuals and families “in need with access to food and a more healthful diet” (Dixit-Joshi et al. 2013). In the case of FMNP, the program is explicitly designed to ensure these purchases are made directly from farmers at farmers markets and farm stands.
The purpose of this report is to aggregate and assess SNAP and FMNP sales at farmers markets in Washington State over a five-year period from 2010 to 2014. Tracking the scope and impact of food access programs at farmers markets is challenging on multiple fronts.
There are a variety of government agencies involved, each with their own goals and clients. The federal and state administrative policies are regularly changing. The amount, timing, and sources of funding tend to be uncertain from year to year. The point of sale and electronic benefits equipment, services, and costs are in a period of transition. And farmers markets themselves have had to figure out how to stretch their capacity to manage additional bookkeeping, do data collection, train themselves and vendors on programs rules, work with new partners, and outreach to SNAP and FMNP clients.
This report aggregates data provided by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and Washington State Department of Health (DOH), the two key agencies responsible for SNAP and FMNP programs, respectively. In addition, this report includes data from a recent Washington State University (WSU) Small Farms Program pilot project that provided Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), credit and debit technology to farmers markets, and collected data on specialty crop sales.
Farmers markets can be key assets and active partners in improving food access at the neighborhood, city, county and statewide levels (Briggs, et al. 2010). In Washington State, a recent survey of farmers markets found that “serving low-income community members” was an important goal for over 70% of market organizations. Moreover, improving their community’s “access to fresh farm produce” or “access to healthy foods” was the primary motivation for starting a third of farmers markets (Ostrom and Donovan 2013).
These federal nutrition programs have catalyzed many farmers markets to independently create partnerships with their local Women, Infant, and Children (WIC), Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and SNAP program managers. Farmers market organizations have also independently created their own local food access programs.