After years of frustration and confusion, the Edmonds Historical Museum and the Edmonds Food Bank have cut through the red tape surrounding use of federal nutrition assistance benefits at the museum-sponsored summer market.
Many market vendors have long accepted vouchers issued by the Washington State Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) and the Women Infants and Children (WIC) assistance program. But those using the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were unable to use these benefits at the Edmonds market. Other local farmers markets accepted SNAP, leaving many wondering why they couldn’t be used in Edmonds.
The reason lies in the arcane bureaucratic underpinnings of these programs. For starters, both SFMNP and WIC are state programs under the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Recipients used to receive paper vouchers they could use to purchase produce at farmers markets, but the vouchers have now been replaced with a debit card preloaded with the amount of the person’s benefit.
While independent farmers at the market can individually arrange with DSHS to accept vouchers/debit cards for the two state programs, SNAP is another story entirely.
SNAP – a program formerly referred to as food stamps — does not fall under the auspices of the state, but rather is a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like the state programs, SNAP recipients receive an EBT (debit) card preloaded with the amount of their benefit. But unlike the state programs, the individual farmers cannot accept SNAP benefits directly – they must flow through the administration of the various farmers markets. Many local farmers markets – because they are essentially grocery stores – are authorized to accept SNAP and have for some time. When a purchase is made, the farmer reports it to the farmers market official who manages SNAP, and the official then obtains the money from SNAP, and ultimately pays the farmer.
But the Edmonds Museum Summer Market is different. Unlike other markets, the Museum Summer Market serves as the major fundraising activity of the Edmonds Historical Museum. Money raised through booth rentals helps pay for the various programs, exhibits and other museum activities. As such, it is not primarily a grocery store, and therefore can’t be authorized to accept SNAP.
“And this is where the Edmonds Food Bank came in,” explained food bank Executive Director Casey Davis. “Since our primary mission is supplying food, we put our heads together with museum market officials to see if there was some way we as the food bank could be authorized to accept and manage SNAP benefits but allow these to be used to purchase produce at the museum’s market.
“No one had ever tried anything like this before,” Davis said.
“It meant coming up with an entirely new approach, and then getting approval from SNAP to actually do it,” added long-time museum Market Manager Christina Martin. “The paperwork was daunting, but it finally all came together and as of June 1, SNAP recipients can use their benefits to buy fresh produce at the Edmonds market. Not only do the folks on SNAP get fresh, locally grown food, but our farmers – who are often just squeaking by – are able to sell more of what they grow. Everyone wins.”
So how do SNAP recipients use their EBT card at the Edmonds Market?
First stop is the Edmonds Food Bank booth, located just inside the 5th Avenue entrance to the market near the downtown fountain. There, recipients will meet Food Bank SNAP Manager Tracey Peterson, who will ask how much they plan to spend and swipe their SNAP EBT card for that amount. She then gives the shopper $1 wooden market tokens equivalent to the amount swiped on the EBT card. The shopper can then use these tokens like money to purchase groceries. Any remaining unspent tokens cannot be put back on the EBT card, but can be held and used at future markets.
All the normal guidelines for SNAP purchases apply here too – for example, tokens can’t be used for non-food items, prepared food to eat on the spot like hot dogs or pizza, or even prepared foods to take home like a whole pizza in a box.
“These are strict requirements,” explained Martin. “Say a vendor is selling peanuts – if they’re sealed in a bag to take home, you can use your tokens. But if they’re loose and designed to consume on the spot, you’ve got to dig into your pocket money. If you’re confused or have questions while shopping, just look for a market ambassador (the folks wandering around with the green aprons) and they can advise about which items qualify for tokens and which don’t.”
At the end of the day, the vendors turn in all the tokens they’ve collected, a record is made of how much SNAP money each has taken in, and thethe next week the vendor receives a check in that amount.
But wait, there’s more.
To help stretch SNAP benefits further (and at the same time help the independent farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets) the State of Washington offers a special program for SNAP recipients called Market Match. It allows someone who is using their SNAP benefits at a farmers market to get a matching money voucher up to a $25 limit for purchase of fresh produce.
But to be able to use Market Match, market organizers must apply in November, and since the Edmonds Market did not get approved for SNAP until June 1, they missed the deadline.
But again, creativity and a passion to make this work inspired Food Bank SNAP Manager Tracey Peterson to create a new program — which she named Edmonds Food Bank Market Bucks — to bridge the gap until they qualify for Market Match. Funded by a few generous donors, shoppers swiping their SNAP EBT card at the food bank booth also receive blue “market bucks” vouchers. The matching money — up to a limit of $10 — enables recipients to bring more food home and support local farmers at the same time. According to Peterson, the application process is already underway to offer the state Market Match program, and as soon as this goes through it will supplant the Market Bucks program.
“This whole story is a classic example of partnerships finding solutions,” Davis said. “What we did was great but there’s so much more that could be done at the administrative levels of all three programs to make the benefits more accessible to those who need them. A single application process would be so helpful. For example, right now if a senior who qualifies for both SNAP and SFMNP takes in a grandchild and through that now qualifies for WIC, they must complete three separate paper-heavy application processes – and this is just to purchase food!
“Bringing SNAP benefits to the Edmonds market was a step in the right direction. It took lots of work, creativity and dedication, and it’s making a real dent in food insecurity in our area. And helping folks is what it’s all about,” Davis added.
“It’s been a long, collaborative effort but we stuck with it, got creative, and came up with a unique solution,” concluded Martin. “When SNAP recipients get fresh produce, they’re not only bringing nutritious, quality food to their home tables but they’re also supporting local farmers, many of whom are barely getting by. And it wouldn’t have happened without the dedication, persistence and passion of everyone involved. It was a true team effort.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel