Farmers@Firehouse: First Market-Wide SNAP Acceptance Program in Pittsburgh
The Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District has begun accepting SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). The first market in the city to accept SNAP on a market-wide basis, Farmers@Firehouse is part of a growing trend in the Pittsburgh region, as well as country-wide. Just Harvest, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, has partnered with the City of Pittsburgh and plans to roll out a similar program at two city markets this fall with the goal of expanding to all seven next season. The Washington County Farmers Market was the first in the region to accept SNAP a few years ago.
The benefits of accepting SNAP at farmers markets are manifold: making fresh, healthy foods more available and accessible for everyone; encouraging regional agriculture by increasing sales for local farmers; and emphasizing the role of a farmers market as a community resource that is welcoming to everyone. It was only recently, when food stamps were converted from paper vouchers to debit-style electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, that food stamp shoppers have been unable to redeem their benefits at farmers markets. While the EBT cards have reduced stigma for food stamp shoppers in supermarkets, they have also created a technological barrier for farmers and farmers markets. The equipment needed to accept the cards is costly and sometimes requires access to power and a phone line, amenities many farmers markets don’t have.
The first step in getting a market certified to accept SNAP benefits is securing approval from the Food and Nutrition Service, a branch of the USDA. The FNS is eager to certify farmers markets as SNAP vendors, but this is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the process can sometimes be tricky to navigate.
The USDA has been working to make it easier to accept SNAP benefits at farmers markets, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture purchased 100 battery-powered, wireless point-of-sale (POS) devices which would enable markets to accept EBT cards without access to power or phone lines. These terminals are free to markets who have secured FNS approval and Farmers@Firehouse was able to implement their EBT program thanks to a free terminal from the Department of Agriculture (retail value is around $900). In addition to EBT cards, the terminal has the capacity to process credit and debit cards. Farmers@Firehouse is currently accepting debit cards in addition to EBT.
Customers wishing to pay by card approach the manager’s table and swipe their card to purchase wooden tokens in $5 (debit) and $1 (EBT) denominations. They can use the tokens like cash with the vendors for eligible products. Tokens are good throughout the season and unused EBT tokens can be credited back onto the shopper’s account. The system is free for EBT shoppers, and we’ve been asking a $1 donation from debit shoppers to support and help sustain the program.
We implemented our new system three weeks ago and have seen a positive response so far. We’ve done little marketing, so that’s the next big step, but customers seem eager to use their cards and card sales have increased week by week.
Another challenge will be promoting the use of EBT cards. Markets in other cities have had success with “double-value” programs, where funding enables the market to double the value of SNAP shoppers’ dollars. A shopper who spends $5 on their EBT card would be able to receive $10 in tokens, for example. Markets participating in these programs report a sharp increase in EBT redemptions.
Farmers@Firehouse’s program represents a move in the right direction, and Just Harvest’s partnership with Pittsburgh Citiparks will be another huge step forward in expanding access to healthy, local foods for people of all incomes. Stay tuned for updates on that project!!