This National Farmers Market Week, Let’s Celebrate the Low-Hanging Fruit—and Then Reach Higher

August 8, 2016 | 12:27 pm
Mark Bittman
Former Contributor

It’s rare to come across a policy that’s actually a win-win: something that does measurable good at the political or financial expense of virtually no one. These policies are truly low-hanging fruit, so obvious that we should feel embarrassed for not enacting them sooner.

One such policy is the recent decision in Los Angeles requiring that all farmers markets accept Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT—the debit card used to redeem food stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The many benefits of farmers markets

At this point, the advantages of eating fruits and vegetables are known to just about everyone. Sadly, rather than investing in these foods, our government overwhelmingly subsidizes foods that contribute to disease and illness. When we consider the effect of these retrograde policies on our well-being and our wallets, changing the pattern of federal food investment becomes a literal no-brainer. Making it easier for low-income Americans to use EBT at farmers markets is an excellent way to do this.

Shopping at farmers markets serves not only eaters but farmers, whose incomes rise alongside sales. And locally grown and sold produce is not only good for the people who grow and eat it; it’s good for the environment and even local economies.

While there are exceptions, growers who sell at farmers markets tend to be smaller fruit and vegetable producers and tend to use environmentally sustainable practices. So when these farmers reach more customers, it encourages the type of production that we want to support while retaining more food dollars locally.

Really, the major question here is, “If this is all so obvious, why aren’t there more policies like this one?”

Access for SNAP users is fundamental

People have been arguing about food stamps since before they existed. Even among supporters, there are fierce disagreements about how the program should be run. For example: Should SNAP be used for any food at any time, including fast food and junk? Or should it be restricted to ingredients, food that can actually be prepared to promote nutrition?

In the middle of these debates about whether federally-subsidized dollars should be used to buy what essentially amounts to poison—like soda and other “foods” perhaps better labeled UFOs, or unidentifiable foodlike objects—we’ve missed something fundamental, with which SNAP supporters in either camp (and maybe even on both sides of the aisle) would agree: that SNAP should be used for real fruits and vegetables anywhere and everywhere that real fruits and vegetables are sold.

The number of farmers markets nationwide has been steadily rising, but food access—a hallmark of a good food system—isn’t just about selling quality food, it’s about making sure that everyone can get it. Before this legislation, the LA Food Policy Council estimated that over half of city farmers markets did not accept EBT. This means that more than a million Angelenos who rely on California’s food stamp program each month were largely barred from their local markets. Now with this policy, these shoppers not only have better access to fresh produce, but can leverage incentives like market match programs (which increase the value of SNAP at farmers markets) to purchase even more.

A big win—and lots of work still to be done

As exciting as this is (and as necessary as it is for all places to follow in LA’s footsteps), it’s important to not confuse victories like this with sufficient solutions for food access.  We still have a tremendous amount of work to do to ensure that farmers markets are good vehicles of food access for everyone. This means making sure that markets are accessible through the modes of transit and at the times of the day and week that lower income residents can actually reach them. This means making sure markets advertise that they accept EBT, as well as educate shoppers about how to redeem benefits and, indeed, how to prepare the food they’re buying.  This means that incentives like market match programs must be well-funded and well-managed so they can reach the people that need them most.

Most importantly, this means recognizing that food access is ultimately not about EBT machines but about poverty. True food access will exist when SNAP has become obsolete—not because we’ve defunded or restricted or reformed it into a new acronym, but because we’ve committed to tackling systemic income inequality, and given all Americans the opportunity to buy food that is affordable, healthy, and fair.

In the meantime, this is a smart and easy way to get a little closer.