Few Illinois Farmers’ Markets Equipped to Accept EBT, Study Finds
July 2, 2015 | Julianne Tveten
by Julianne Tveten
On the USDA website, a search tool allows users to search for locations that accept payments via electronic benefits transfer (EBT)–more colloquially known as food stamps. Type in any area in the U.S. — whether Salem, Fargo, or New York City–and you’re likely to find at least ten drugstores, supermarkets, delis, or convenience stores nearby that accept payment through EBT.
One type of food resource, however, is largely missing from the results: farmers’ markets.
According to the USDA, an estimated 70 to 75 percent of farmers’ markets throughout the country weren’t accepting EBT as of 2014. It’s a notable gap–and one that a team of researchers in Illinois seeks to bring to light.
Late last year, Sylvia Smith and Afroza Hasin of Southern Illinois University and Pat Stieren of the Illinois Farmers Market Association completed a study examining the patterns of Illinois farmers’ markets that accept EBT. The researchers examined 24 farmers’ markets.
Perhaps the most instinctive explanation for low EBT offerings at farmers’ markets rate is in the nature of the institution: intimate, homegrown, historically low-tech and low-budget. Businesses are small, vending stations are minimal, and cash payments the default.
“Farmers’ markets are a kind of paper hand exchange. I think that’s one of the things we love about farmers’ markets. It’s the old-fashioned–here’s the product, here’s the money,” says Smith.
But there’s more to it. While the number of SNAP-authorized farmers’ markets has increased (between 2009 and 2012, the number leaped from 936 to 3,214), the mechanical process of accepting SNAP payments remains a challenge. Since completing the transition from paper-based payment to EBT in 2004, the USDA has issued free wireless processing devices to authorized farmers’ markets with lower funding. However, many markets operate in relatively remote areas, such fields or parking lots, with limited electricity or phone connections, rendering the machines ineffective.
Barring the devices, vendors at authorized farmers’ markets can process EBT transactions manually. But this brings up a separate problem: most vending stations are manned by only one or two individuals, and the act of recording the information, writing receipts, preparing accounting reports, and processing other data by hand is a time-consuming, unwieldy hassle for both vendor and consumer.
Processing methods aside, the act of applying to accept EBT alone can be tedious, at least in the state of Illinois.
“There’s a lot of paperwork to the application process,” Smith says. “You have to be approved by the Illinois Department of Human Services to be a SNAP provider to receive the SNAP benefits. Then you have to go through the process of applying to get the equipment.”
For some markets, she adds, acquiring and training staff to use the equipment might not seem worth it for areas in which EBT use is low. Accepting EBT is widely beneficial for metropolitan areas like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, she says, whose larger, more concentrated and varied populations generate a demand for it. In smaller suburban areas with more socioeconomic homogeneity, however, market managers might not detect enough of a customer need to justify the effort.
Will things change? Probably, but slowly, Smith says. Markets need the right support, strategies, and financial motives, but she expects those that seeking EBT-readiness can learn from those that already have it.
For example, 18 of the farmers’ markets in the study sample instituted incentive programs, in which they provided tokens or paper coupons as “bonus dollars” for purchases made with SNAP benefits. (Generally, private organizations or local governments provide the extra funding. The nonprofit Wholesome Wave sponsors the Illinois program.) In 2011–the first year of the study–markets that offered incentives for EBT use had, on average, $3,716.67 more in EBT sales than did the markets that did not offer any incentives, the study found.
Furthermore, using machines that process EBT may prove a boon. The study found that the eight markets that used purchased or leased EBT-only processing machines generated, on average, an extra $223.32. Additionally, the seven markets that used point-of-sale (POS) machines, which process both EBT and credit and debit transactions, earned an average of $3,001.83 more in EBT sales that same year.
Smith, Hasin, and Stieren have broadened their research to Michigan and Wisconsin, both of which have comparatively high EBT acceptance rates and state funding, to gauge further strategies for processing and accessibility.
“We’re slowly adapting and trying to get on board. It just takes a while. And right now, we’re still, at 24 percent, early in this change,” she says. “But I’m hoping there’ll be quite a bit more change in the next few years.