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May 24 2012

Proposed Farmers Market Subsidy Not about Farmers or Markets

Vicki E. Alger

A new poll commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation says the government should do more to expand access to fresh foods. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

Nearly all – 93 percent -- said they think that it’s “very important” or “somewhat important” to “make sure all Americans have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables.” Three-quarters of respondents said they would support a national program to double the value of food stamp benefits that are used at farmers markets.

Today, food stamp program participation and cost are at an all-time high, with nearly 45 million recipients (about one in seven Americans used food stamps last year) at a cost $78 billion. Less than 1 percent of food stamps are redeemed at farmers markets.

The Department of Agriculture wants to increase that figure by spending $4 million to “make sure that farmers markets are open to everyone no matter what their income level,” explained Deputy Secretary Merrigan.

Stacy Miller of the Farmers Market Coalition hailed the move, saying, “It’s about time we ensured that more of the more than $70 million spent to ensure that the poorest among us have enough to eat is also supporting limited resource and beginning farmers...It’s an inexpensive win-win-win for farmers, consumers, and local economies.”

She should have said for state workers, wireless point-of-sale (POS) equipment manufacturers, and the federal government.

According to the USDA’s Farmers’ Market: Allocation and Use of SNAP FY12 Equipment Funds memo, “individual farmers, direct marketing farmers, individual farm stands, and other individual vendors are not eligible” to receive the POS equipment purchased with the $4 million. (p. 2). Instead the cash will go to states, which will have to compile reports, fill out forms, and all the usual rigmarole. (See other memos here.) It seems something else is going on here. The LA Times reports:

Each $1-billion increase in food stamp benefits is estimated to create or maintain 18,000 full-time equivalent jobs, including 3,000 farm jobs, according to the USDA. The economy grows by $1.73 for every $1 invested in food stamps, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics and a former advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

By that logic, we could get the roughly 8.1 million unemployed Americans back to work by simply increasing food stamp benefits $450 billion. That would be great news for government workers but bad news for taxpayers—including those who sell their garden goodies at farmers markets.

Farmers market vendors should be careful about who claims to speak on their behalf. Consider all the local and state regulations that already make it tough to do business. (See, for example, Cleveland’s West Side Market here, first 2:02 minutes; and NYC’s Greenmarket here).

The feds likely won’t make things any easier. Even before their $4 million food-stamps offer, the USDA rules in the Code of Federal Regulations approached 11,000 pages, including regulations pertaining to farmers markets.  As my colleague Julie Gunlock pointed out recently the USDA “doesn’t really have a handle on just how Americans feed themselves.” Nor should it.

People with enough entrepreneurial and civic spirit to sell their goods at neighborhood farmers markets know their customers best. They’re also in a better position to know whether purchasing the equipment necessary to process food stamp payments makes sense or not.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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