For people who get government assistance, healthy food should be just as easy to buy as processed junk. But it often isn't, because farmers' markets aren't set up to accommodate food stamps.
In our recent Foodstamps and Farmers' Markets Project, we asked the GOOD community for ways we can make it easy to use and accept “electronic benefit transfer” cards at farmers’ markets. Here's what you came up with.
From M Addy:
This may be oversimplifying the problem, but what if you just complete the loop between customer, supermarket, and farmer with vouchers. Customers can use food stamps at supermarkets. Supermarkets can trade stamps for vouchers (receipts from the register with noted credit). Customers can trade vouchers for food with farmers. Farmers can use vouchers (credited receipts) at the supermarket.
This goes on three assumptions:
1. Farmers shop at supermarkets.
2. Supermarkets that take food stamps use machines that can print receipts with noted credit.
3. All would be willing to participate.
From Steve Holt:
This is not an idea, per se, but an example of a place where the concept of accepting food stamps and WIC at a farmers' market is already in place.
Our community, East Boston—which shares the neighborhood with Boston's Logan International Airport—is a largely Hispanic immigrant, largely low-income neighborhood. Last year a local paper called East Boston a "food desert." (I disagreed at the time, but nevertheless, the distinction was made.) A farmers' market was put into place a few years ago that not only accepts WIC and food stamps, but does people one better—it doubles their value. I don't have statistics on usage of the market, but it's seemed busy whenever I've been by there.
From Marie Hermansson:
Food stamp users, in addition to their EBT cards, opt to receive farmers market stickers. The sheet of stickers will be part hologram and part two-dimensional barcode. At the local farmers' market the sticker is exchanged for fresh produce. Each sticker will have a certain value ($5, $10, or $20). The vendor sticks the sticker in its place on their respective form, again with their own two-dimensional barcode. At the end of the day, the vendor can scan with traditional scanner or their camera phone, or fax the paper form to the Department of Health and Human Services. The barcode on the sticker holds the information of the user and the barcode on the form holds the info about the vendor. The forms are electronically processed and the vendor receives money on their bank account.
From Roger Cook:
There are already card readers out there for cell phones; I know there's one for the iPhone, and I've seen set-ups on other phones. The question is interfacing to the various states' databases. That shouldn't be too hard.
Have the administration at a farmers' market set up an EBT terminal and have the vendors write an invoice with the total and then hold the order while the customer visits EBT/debit card/credit card booth. The customer gets a slip of paper marked "paid," the administrator credits accounts and keeps records, the customer takes the slip over to the vendor's booth, picks up the order and leaves the slip, and gets a receipt. This system could be used for any electronic payment form, and shouldn't be too stigmatized if cashless customers can use this for their debit card purchases.
Services like Paypal already allow mobile payments from person to person via cell phone. A similar thing could be done with EBT. Just like a Paypal account, an EBT account could be linked to your cell phone. Assuming this technology is becoming more ubiquitous (which would be to the advantage of farmers' markets, which also don't have credit card devices), the EBT user would look no different than any other tech-savvy cell phone user. This would have to be a government-backed program, but I think it would be an excellent solution.
Not everyone has a cell phone. But then again, nearly everyone does, including many of my acquaintances who are homeless.
More troubling would be the transaction costs. Text messages cost money and many low-income users do not have text service. Other costs may well apply for using a mobile service.
Nevertheless, I think cell charges would be an efficient and discreet method of payment.
Here's my suggestion: Allow users to purchase "White House Garden" or "Michelle's Garden" tokens (made of recycled materials) with their EBT cards. These tokens would only be redeemable for locally grown foods, but the growers themselves could deposit or cash them in at any bank.
From Samantha West:
Since the market-specific token option already exists, it is about building off it through education and getting people, of all walks of life, interested in the value of eating healthy, local food. This will help counter any perceived inconvience.
The good news is it is already happening. The organization Operation Frontline, along with the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, sponsored the Eating Right series for adults on food stamps. Every Saturday they held a two-hour class on nutrition, taught attendees how to cook, and gave them a bag of farmers' market veggies. At the end of the six-week series, they had a 100 percent graduation rate. This is how it should be done.