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USDA: More farmers markets, but few deal with SNAP

More than 1,000 new farmers markets have opened across the country in the past year, but the percentage of all markets that accept SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits remains small, the Agriculture Department reported today.

The 2011 National Farmers Market Directory, which USDA released today, showed that the number of markets had risen from 6,132 last year to 7,175.

The increasing popularity of farmers markets stems from “the yearning of Americans who are no longer connected to the farm” to reconnect with how food is produced, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a call to reporters today.

“The remarkable growth in farmers markets is an excellent indicator of the staying power of local and regional foods,” Merrigan said in a news release earlier. “These outlets provide economic benefits for producers to grow their businesses and also to communities by providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods. In short, they are a critical ingredient in our nation’s food system.”

The market listings submitted to USDA on a voluntary basis by farm market managers showed that the fastest growth occurred in states outside the Pacific and Northeastern states, where farmers markets are well established.

Alaska and Texas ranked at the top for most growth in farmers markets at 46 and 38 percent, respectively. The top 10 list for growth:
  • Alaska – 35 markets, up 46 percent
  • Texas – 166 markets, up 38 percent
  • Colorado – 130 markets, up 38 percent
  • New Mexico – 80 markets, up 38 percent
  • Indiana – 171markets, up 37 percent
  • Oklahoma – 61 markets, up 32 percent
  • South Dakota – 29 markets, up 32 percent
  • Pennsylvania – 266 markets, up 31 percent
  • Ohio – 278 markets, up 31 percent
  • Michigan – 349 markets, up30 percent

The top 10 states for number of recorded farmers markets in 2011 were spread across the country:
  • California – 729 markets
  • New York – 520
  • Michigan – 349
  • Illinois – 305
  • Ohio – 278
  • Pennsylvania – 266
  • Massachusetts – 255
  • Iowa – 237
  • Wisconsin – 231
  • North Carolina – 217

Nearly 12 percent of the markets indicated they are able to accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamp) benefits onsite. This is still a small percentage of the markets, but represents a 16 percent increase in the number of markets accepting SNAP benefits since 2010.

While SNAP redemption data are not available for farmers markets specifically, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service recently reported that SNAP redemptions in 2010 totaled $7.5 million at all certified farmers market and direct-to-consumer food retail establishments, USDA said.

Program participants made 453,711 purchases at farmers markets and direct farm marketing outlets nationwide, with an average purchase amount of $16.69, the agency added. The potential for increased sales is huge since the government announced this week that the number of SNAP beneficiaries has risen to almost 46 million people, which is one in seven or 15 percent of the population.

Food stamp beneficiaries used to be able to spend paper coupons at farmers markets, but the conversion to the electronic benefit transfer [EBT] system has meant that market operators have had to acquire the machines in order to accept the benefits.

The cost of the machines has been the main factor in discouraging the markets from accepting benefits, according to a Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources [MDAR] report cited in The Valley Advocate, a Northampton, Mass., online newspaper. The February report said that an EBT machine cost participating markets, on average, $701, as well as $35 in monthly expenses.

In its attempt to improve the diets and health of low-income people, MDAR has made grants and provided technical assistance to markets that take the cards, and reported that merchants deciding to get the machines have found that sales have increased.

Merrigan noted in her press call today that the farmers market promotion program at the Agricultural Marketing Service has grant money to help farmers markets with EBT technology.

Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport, Conn., foundation, also has programs to provide SNAP beneficiaries with double value coupons if they shop at farmers markets. The foundation says the increased sales make it possible for the markets to purchase the technology.

A Union of Concerned Scientists study released yesterday reported that farmers markets create jobs, Merrigan noted. [Link below]

She also said that USDA cannot take action against farmers markets that allow people to sell food items that are not sold by farmers or produced locall. Those rules, she said, are established by each market

The 2011 National Farmers Market Directory results were released in advance of National Farmers Market Week, which takes place from Aug. 7 to 13 as declared by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The USDA National Farmers Market Directory is available online. [Link below] Users can search for markets based on location, available products, and types of payment accepted, including participation in federal nutrition programs. Directory users can locate markets based on proximity to ZIP code and to see links to active farmers market websites.