Friday, March 11, 2011

Crescent City Farmers Market - Local Food for Everyone

The national movement toward healthier, fresher, more local food has spurred a large resurgence of farmers markets. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, “as of mid-2010, there were 6,132 farmers markets operating throughout the U.S. This is a 16 percent increase from 2009.” Some 886 farmers markets even operate year-round in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Are farmers markets for everyone?

Today that answer is no. Only about 13% of farmers markets are equipped to redeem SNAP benefits. This effectively leaves out the 1 in 7 Americans who receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Why don’t all farmers markets accept SNAP?  Well, for starters, “food stamps” are not paper stamps anymore. Since 2004, benefits are credited and debited electronically to the recipient’s EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card.  EBT machines are costly, perhaps $800-$1500, plus annual operating fees. If a market decides to purchase one shared machine, then a market scrip or token system and a central staff to manage it are required.

Richard McCarthy

To help make nutritious farmers market food available to SNAP recipients, USDA Food and Nutrition Service has recommended that EBT machines be supplied to farmers markets that lack them today. President Obama agreed and included $4M funding for EBT machines in the 2012 budget. We, along with the Farmers Market Coalition hope this small but high-leverage line item remains.

In spite of the expense and red tape, more and more farmers markets have begun allowing customers to use their SNAP benefits to purchase food. To find out just how that works, we visited Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of, in New Orleans, LA. has an interesting history. Begun within the Twomey Center for Peace through Justice, it is regarded as a success story in fostering socially-inclusive economic development, especially for farmers and fishermen – “public markets for public good.” Now a separate 501(C)3 organization, offers a wealth of advice, measurement tools, and success stories for those interested in public markets.

Kelly Landrieu
Richard was one of those responsible for starting the Crescent City Farmers Market in 1995, and for re-starting it following the Katrina disaster. Today, operates the market 3 times a week in different locations in New Orleans. They were among the first markets to welcome EBT cards (in Louisiana, the cards are called “Louisiana Purchase” cards).

We visited the smallest and newest of the Crescent City Farmers Market locations on Thursday. It’s open from 3:00pm – 7:00pm. We even got to ring the opening bell!

Vendors at the Crescent City Markets accept cash or special round wooden tokens called “crescents.” Anyone who wants to make purchases with credit, debit, or EBT cards, buys crescents at the welcome table. Thus only a single wireless card reader services all the vendors.

At the welcome table, Kelly Landrieu, Markets Community Coordinator, showed us how it works. Kelly swipes the customer’s card in the wireless card reader, enters the amount they’d like, and when authorized gives the customer their crescents worth $1 or $5. The crescents for EBT customers are slightly different because SNAP benefits can only be used for unprepared food, not other items that might be available at the market such as ready-to-eat food, plants, or crafts. Customers then use the crescents just like cash. They never expire and can be used at any of the Crescent City Farmers Market locations. The day we were there, approximately half the crescents were bought with credit or debit cards and the other half with EBT cards.

The market we saw was vibrant, interactive, and fun. All were treated with equal friendliness and respect throughout the market. It was a community of neighbors. Shoppers ranged in age from about 4 months to about 90 years. Vendors, some of whom came into the city from as far as 2 hours away, chatted with each other and were eager to tell their stories and describe their food to customers.

We bought broccoli from two “WWOOFers” from the Oakland Organic Farm in Gurley, Louisiana, and shrimp from Pete & Clara’s Seafood, just beginning a Community Supported Fishery.  We bought hydroponic tomatoes, home-made pesto, the last of this year’s citrus, a fresh baguette, unhomogenized milk, and Creole cream cheese. YUM! 

Beyond providing an inclusive market full of healthy, local food and open to all customers, positive social change was a goal of the Crescent City Farmers Markets from the start. It didn’t happen by chance.
  • At first, farmers were fearful of making the long trip into New Orleans due to high crime rates and misperceptions about whether the market would be profitable for them. But persisted in recruiting vendors needed to make the market meet customers’ needs. Today the stalls are full and the 3 markets have an annual combined economic impact of nearly $10 million on its vendors, host neighborhood, and surrounding region.
  • At first, SNAP recipients were turned away because the systems weren’t in place to accept EBT cards. But, after working through the arduous process of becoming a certified EBT site, instituted “MarketMatch,” a privately-funded incentive program that for a limited time matches SNAP customers’ first $25 with double crescents when they use their EBT cards at the Market. The result was a huge increase in use of the market by SNAP customers, even when the incentive program was not in effect.
  • At first, older customers tended to find the market intimidating. But now, takes “Farmers Market Bingo” to senior centers, uses this fun game as a way to highlight what’s at the market, and then arranges “Meet Me at the Market” orientations so older customers will feel comfortable there.
Richard also told us that the markets have led to increasingly valued relationships between vendors and the whole range of customers. Shoppers are learning about new foods, eating in healthier ways. Neighborhoods have been rebranded as healthy and friendly communities.

People even come to the market just to meet other people!

Appendix: Does YOUR farmers market accept EBT cards?  Here are two new resources to help farmers markets learn how to accept SNAP/EBT:

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