By 10 on a recent Saturday morning, the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market was already busy. The market partners with SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Open Saturdays, the farmers market takes place at the convergence of River and Third Streets in downtown Troy, an area that, like many urban centers, features more convenience stores and eateries than markets. Shoppers looking for an alternative to otherwise limited options can find organic fruits, vegetables and herbs, locally-produced meat, fish, and dairy, in addition to prepared foods from neighborhood businesses, live music, and information about community projects.
Upon arriving at the farmers market, patrons exchange cash or a credit card for tokens at a centrally located Market Table. Or, as a large sign behind the table indicates, you can swipe an EBT card. This Electronic Benefits Transfer terminal allows shoppers to deduct a specified amount from their SNAP benefits and, in return, receive dollar tokens that can be used to buy items that adhere to SNAP guidelines, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, as well as food-producing seeds and plants.
The program at the Troy Farmers Market is part of a push across New York — and the country — to improve access to healthy, farm-produced foods among lower-income communities, while boosting business for local farmers. This mission has come under scrutiny lately, as the fight over a federal Farm Bill continues. One of the most contentious questions is whether to separate farm and food policy, thereby undoing a decades-long partnership. Also promised are billions of dollars of cuts to SNAP, amounting to $4.1 billion over the next 10 years, cuts that Amy Klein, Executive Director of Capital District Community Gardens, says would be “devastating” to locals who rely on food stamps to feed their families.
So, what do the numbers at the Troy Farmers Market look like? On a recent Saturday, says Market Manager Monica Kurzejeski, between 20 and 30 customers swiped their EBT cards, amounting to about $500 spent. She says that these numbers have steadily increased since the market began accepting EBT cards in 2010, with use doubling in the past year alone. Meanwhile, non EBT users account for the majority of shoppers, with about 6,000 to 7,000 visitors each week.
Kurzejeski hopes that these numbers will continue to grow, as people learn that the market accepts EBT cards. “I don’t think we’ve even reached a fraction of what we could potentially have. I think we only, as a region, all the farmers markets in combination like Schenectady, Saratoga and Troy are the three big regional ones, we probably hit less than 1 percent of the population in a given year as far as people who go to the farmers market, so there’s a lot of work to be done still.” She says that the work of reaching out to a more diverse customer base is particularly important given the market’s mission statement, which highlights community involvement. An ongoing initiative, Fresh Connect, is meant to do just that. Under the state-funded program, which began in July and is scheduled to end November 30, EBT users receive a two-dollar coupon for every five dollars that they spend at the farmers market.
Vendors and volunteers seem to share her enthusiasm for the program. The decision to equip the Troy Farmers Market with an EBT terminal “was easy,” says former president and current volunteer Cindy Pohlman. As Dale-Ila Riggs, owner of The Berry Patch and member of the market’s Board of Directors explains, “We accept EBT benefits, we also accept WIC coupons, Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons, Senior Nutrition Program coupons, so it’s a nice addition, and I think makes a really nice, well-rounded group of people that are able to come to the market and enjoy the benefits of getting the fresh locally-grown products.”
Zack Metzger is the manger of Homestead Farms, whose booth at the Troy Famers Market features pasture-raised beef and chicken. Like many vendors, he supported the market’s decision to make its products accessible to EBT users, although he was surprised that he did not see more of them: “It’s necessary; you have to support those programs. That said, we don’t see a lot of EBT use here at the market, at least not at our stand. I don’t know what that really means except that maybe we’re not getting the customers that have the kind of economic need showing up here, and that’s something we always have to strive for, to reach out to folks like that.”
This is one of the problems most often cited with using SNAP benefits at the farmers market: price. Amy Klein says that farmers markets are not the most accessible resource for low-income families looking for food that is both nutritious and affordable. Instead, she points to other options like Capital District Community Gardens’ Mobile Markets and Healthy Convenience Stores. Kurzejeski, however, says that “different vendors have different price points.” She also points to two benefits unique to farmers markets: the freshness of the produce, which means a longer shelf-life, and the availability of food-producing plants, which means that EBT users can invest in a plant that will supplement their diet for an entire season.
If the proposed cuts to SNAP do go into effect, families across the Northeast who rely on SNAP to afford healthy alternatives will feel the cuts, as will local businesses, says Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat. “The debate here is that it’s an expensive program, but it’s a necessary program. It’s good for our agricultural communities, and it’s essential for our low-income families that have really been reeling with this recession.” Back in Troy, this is what vendor Dale-Ila Riggs had to say about the wisdom of keeping farm and food policy together. “I know it’s been that way for years… It seems like it makes sense to tie the two together, I mean farms are what produce the food for everyone in this country. As far as the decisions made on the political level to separate that out or not, I’ve been so busy farming I really haven’t had time to research it in-depth and form an opinion.”
WAMC News intern Hannah Hohenstein-Flack is a rising junior at Mount Holyoke College majoring in International Relations.