U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand paid a visit to a farmers market in Poughkeepsie Monday. It provides access to fresh and healthy foods in a high-poverty, urban area. Gillibrand was there to demand an investigation into a move by the USDA to end processing of SNAP payments at farmers markets.
The New York Democrat was at the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum Farmers Market, which was recently certified to accept SNAP payments, but has been unable to begin the program. Gillibrand says that’s because the USDA contract with the company that processes SNAP payments at farmers markets ended with no plan in place to continue the service.
“So I’m very concerned that the USDA is just standing by doing nothing when they really should be fixing this problem and having an urgency to do so,” says Gillibrand.
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps.” Gillibrand is taking a three-pronged approach, beginning with getting to the root of the problem, which she alleges is government incompetence.
“Second, we have to find out what’s going on with the USDA to make sure that whatever system is put in place is going to work,” Gillibrand says. “I just wrote a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Agriculture requesting an investigation so that we can get to the bottom of it and know exactly what’s wrong with the process and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Third, Gillibrand says the USDA must detail how it plans to keep SNAP operating without a break in service. A spokesperson for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, in an emailed statement, says, in part, “Since learning of Novo Dia’s decision earlier this month, the Food and Nutrition Service has been exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a disruption in mobile EBT payments at farmers markets. We continue to work toward long-term solutions, and welcome all of our stakeholders to the table.” The statement goes on to say that the department hopes to find a permanent solution to ensure SNAP participants have continued access to the produce and other products at farmers markets.
The Poughkeepsie Waterfront Market kicked off last summer and is offered by the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, where Lara Litchfield-Kimber is executive director.
“The process of disruption with SNAP completely has kept us from coming online,” says Litchfield-Kimber. "So we are certified to be a SNAP market, but we are unable to process SNAP payments, which means that many of the families that we designed this market to help don’t have access to the food in the way that we thought they were going to.”
On July 27, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state and the Farmers Market Federation of New York reached an agreement with mobile application vendor, Novo Dia Group, to enable SNAP recipients to continue to use their benefits at farmers markets through the rest of the season.
But, as Litchfield-Kimber explained, her market was not yet online to process SNAP payments, so the state’s stopgap measure does not help.
“We have figured out a workaround but it’s a very expensive one for us. And most farmers’ markets do not have the luxury of what it is that we’re doing, which is we’re renting our own swiper. We’re paying $0.15 per transaction for SNAP transaction, and then we have to buy our own tokens,” Litchfield-Kimber says. “So we’re self-funding this. We can’t do it alone, though. We have an incredible partner in MVP Health Care.”
Pablo Arroyo is outreach representative for MVP Health Care. He says it’s important to provide access to healthy food, which ultimately saves in health care costs.
“We saw the opportunity,” says Arroyo. “It’s cost effective for us and for everybody else, so here we are.”
Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison says he’s promoting this particular farmers’ market because of the access to inner-city residents it provides.
“It’s frustrating in that there is a bit of a snafu in processing EBT [electronic benefits transfer] and SNAP benefits to the people who need it the most,” says Rolison.
Betty Paris is with Ulster County-based Maynard Farms, one of the vendors at the waterfront market. She sets up not only on the waterfront, but at a few other farmers’ markets in the Hudson Valley, as well as in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
“And Great Barrington, really, they’ve been very active in promoting the SNAP benefits and getting people out with their cards and using the terminals,” says Paris. “And it’s a process of education and I expect the museum’s going to do great with it.”
Meantime, Gillibrand is waiting to hear USDA’s response to how and why it halted the SNAP payment processing before she considers any legislation.
“Once we do find out how it happened, we could write a bill that mandates that SNAP always be available at farmers’ markets and other similarly situated vendors. So that might be what we do,” says Gillibrand. “But I need a little more information about how this happened because it seems absurd.”
Gillibrand supports New York’s move to address the SNAP payment processing in the short term, but says there needs to be a solution from the USDA.