Widespread outcry has grown over the past few weeks following the news that low-income people reliant on food assistance could lose access to a number of farmers markets across the country thanks largely to technical errors.
The glitch will result in some 1,700 farmers markets — nearly a quarter of the roughly 7,000 markets around the country — lacking the ability to accept benefits associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Instead, they will be forced to rely on other food sources, including supermarkets ranging in quality, as well as convenience stores and other venues.
The controversy over the technical errors opened up a number of questions about the implications such a move might have — for buyers reliant on government assistance, for farmers, and for the environment.
Farmers markets are often touted by sustainability advocates for a number of reasons. The markets typically offer local foods, which in turn usually help to reduce the emissions generated by vehicles transporting sustenance across the country; many also help to mitigate the harmful pesticides used in farming. Moreover, they often offer more nutritious options to people, especially in food deserts where grocery stores are lacking; they are a critical source of sustenance for many people — including those reliant on SNAP assistance.
Advocates and experts who spoke with ThinkProgress said that depriving SNAP recipients of access to farmers markets would hurt low-income communities and farmers, in addition to threatening sustainability efforts meant to protect the environment.
Shortly after the announcement last week that a slew of farmers markets across the country would no longer be able to accept SNAP benefits, Erik D. Olson, the senior director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Health & Food program, told ThinkProgress via email that the move would be bad for the environment as much as for public health.
“Blocking low-income Americans from accessing healthful, locally-grown produce at farmers markets is bad for public health and the environment,” Olson said. “Produce available at farmers markets, particularly local and organic fruits and veggies, is often produced with lower pesticide and fertilizer use, and travels shorter distances. That means it’s both healthier for the families who eat it, and has a smaller environmental footprint.”
Olson’s reaction was far from isolated. A number of environmental advocates reacted with horror when, two weeks ago, Austin-based company Novo Dia said its ability to process SNAP transactions would end on July 31 over growing costs and diminishing governmental support.
According to the Washington Post, Novo Dia processes some 40 percent of farmers market SNAP transactions across the country. The move will also impact efforts by non-profit groups to supplement or match SNAP benefits, something organizations like the Fair Food Network promote.
Novo Dia cited several reasons for the decision to end its SNAP transactions, including the extra expenses and, most prominently, a decision by SNAP’s new administrator to partner with financial services giant First Data rather than Novo Dia.
That isn’t the only issue in play. The providing of free card readers and other equipment that has incentivized SNAP transactions at farmers markets to begin with has also been slowed down as Reston-based Financial Transaction Management (FTM) has taken over. It will take weeks to months before markets have the equipment they need, with market season halfway done or close to ending in many areas.
The government has expressed concern over the debacle through a statement promising to explore “all available options” albeit with no immediate solutions offered.
Last Friday, the Post reported that the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs had announced it would help keep Novo Dia afloat for another 30 days, or until the end of August. That buys advocates some time to cobble together a solution — but that doesn’t change the reality that, as of now, there isn’t one.
Assessing the environmental impact of such a decision comes weighted with caveats. Most advocates and experts are quick to note that people suffer first when faced with limited food options. Moreover, there are a number of variables in play when it comes to farmers markets, many of which make it difficult to draw a direct link between the prevalence of markets and the environment.
Glynis Lough, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment program, told ThinkProgress that the issue is a complicated one, with the environmental benefits of farmers markets resting largely on the decisions of farmers, who may or may not choose to grow and transport their products sustainably.
Even so, farmers markets often bring diverse, fresh food options to places where offerings are typically limited. They have also actively catered to SNAP beneficiaries in cities like Richmond, Virginia. Such efforts offer an expanded clientele for farmers, providing them with more income and more opportunities to invest in sustainable production methods, which can at times seem costly.
That extends to organic farming. Kendra Klein works as a senior staff scientist with the non-profit group Friends of the Earth. Speaking to ThinkProgress, Klein emphasized that one of the main appeals of farmers markets for environmental advocates is the empowerment they give to farmers to green their practices.
“There is an enormous range of benefits from sequestering more carbon in the ground where it belongs to [helping] farmers’ resilience to climate change,” she explained.
In order to identify produce as organic, farmers typically have to receive a certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with exceptions for those drawing yearly sales of less than $5,000. That process is intensive and comes with numerous requirements, while ultimately yielding strong net positives for the environment. Organic farming measures reduce the amount of water needed for agriculture, Klein said. Most importantly, they greatly ease the toxic load of agriculture more broadly.
“Organic farmers don’t use toxic pesticides and don’t use synthetic fertilizer,” she said, noting the “clear egregious environmental impact” of such practices. Pesticides threaten biodiversity, including animals like birds and honey bees.
As of 2015, around 40 percent of organic operations reported some level of direct sales to customers through outlets like farmers markets — where they become accessible to customers of all income levels, including SNAP recipients.
“Low income people need to be able to access farmers markets,” said Klein. “There’s an incredible benefit to being able to access food that is free from pesticides. The benefits of organic should be for everyone.”
That access could disappear. Organic produce is usually available at grocery stores, but it is typically marked as more expensive and often seen as an added expense for many shopping on a budget. Making such items cheaper is a challenge, as lowering costs penalizes farmers and in turn disincentives their efforts to grow products sustainably. Farmers markets, by contrast, blend the local and the organic together, and offer products that are often comparable in price or cheaper.
But if farmers start losing their buyers at farmers markets, they may be forced to prioritize sales elsewhere.
“The consequences for some farmers could be to look for other markets further [away] thus increasing food miles, transportation emissions, etc., but could also put other farmers at risk of losing their farm business,” said Cameron Harsh, who works with the Center for Food Safety, noting the impact that the decline in income could have for farmers.
Some advocates argue that this dynamic is precisely the case for making outlets like farmers markets available to consumers of all financial statuses. With SNAP recipients currently in limbo and their access to farmers markets on shaky ground, Klein suggested that a bigger conversation about food access and systems is necessary.
“Low-income communities [and] communities of color, are on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change, the impacts of pesticide use,” she said.
“Why aren’t we looking at the entire supply chain?” Klein asked. “When we create a food system that supports more organic farmers and more organic buyers, we challenge and re-frame the question.”