Matching food stamp recipients with state’s produce gains steam

The state-sponsored effort to get more fresh vegetables and fruits on the dinner tables of those receiving food stamps is showing positive results after its first three years.

More fresh vegetables and fruits are on the dinner tables of Mississippians who receive food stamps. This is thanks to a state-sponsored effort that provides farmers with a new market for their produce and establishes healthier diets for the 20 percent of the state’s population enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, state officials say.

Three years after the Mississippi Department of Human Services initiated the Farmers Market project food stamp redemptions at the markets grew to $50,000 from $10,000 at the start. John Davis, deputy director of the Department of Human Services, expects fiscal 2012 will show an even greater dollar amount, though he won’t know for sure until he sees the year-end totals.

“If we can keep the numbers moving up, I believe more and more farmers will see the opportunity and want to be part of this process,” he said.

The effort started with only a few farmers in fiscal 2010 and grew to 95 at the close of the last fiscal year. The initiative went well from the start, according to Davis. “They saw more foot traffic of people with SNAP cards than ever before,” he said.

“The next year we decided to provide access to the cards for as many farmers as possible.”

Organizers say one of the keys to the rapid growth has been the convenience for farmers in processing payments made with the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that residents taking part in SNAP use to make their purchases. The Department of Human Services provides participating farmers with a free wireless “point of sale” device for processing the payments.

Gone are the paper coupons that merchants would have to redeem to gain payments. Today, the process is entirely electronic. A participating farmer processes a payment on the wireless device and can download his transaction totals at any time.

Mississippi is pioneering the use of the cards and point-of-sale devices for the purchase of farm produce. States such as Iowa have similar programs but have not adopted the fully electronic purchasing and processing, Mississippi officials say.

This “is where we’re ahead of everybody else,” Davis said.

Transactions aren’t limited to the 71 farmers markets across the state. Any grower approved as a U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP vendor can take part.

“It can be farmers on the side of the roads selling produce out of the back of a truck,” Davis said, as well as a U-pick farm.

Some states also charge SNAP vendors a fee if they do not generate at least $20 in transactions a month. “We don’t do that,” Davis added, citing the importance of growing the vendor base and helping the state’s farming sector gain some of the $1 billion in food stamp business the state does annually.

Farms are a key Mississippi industry that needs to be utilized “and SNAP recipients need access to those products,” he said.

The Department of Human Services teams with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture each year to sign farmers up as SNAP vendors. The Ag Department opens the state’s Agriculture Museum for all-day sign-ups with federal SNAP officials. What normally is a 30-to-60-day application process is taken care of in a single day, Davis said.

“We had great response last year” and another sign- up day will likely be held at the museum in February or March, he added.

Paige Manning, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s marketing director, said the sign-up day gets a lot of promotion at farmers markets around the state.

“Since we have the connection with the farmers and the markets as well… we get the word out to them that is available,” she said. Interest is also generated by vendors at the various markets seeing other growers selling produce to buyers with the EBT cards. “That’ helped a lot,” Manning said.

The Department of Human Services’ Farmers Market initiative has given the state’s growers another outlet for their produce. But the benefits of a healthy diet for hundreds of thousands of low-income Mississippians are equally important, she added.

Donna Speed, state nutritionist, said she thinks the effort will prove especially beneficial in rural Mississippi, where produce may be plentiful but access to it is limited. A roadside farm stand may be the only place to buy the produce, she said.

Having the stand operator serve as a SNAP vendor helps ensure fruit and vegetables reach the dinner tables of low-income Mississippians, Speed said, and noted the state is deemed to have the nation’s lowest consumption rate of fresh produce.

Among her challenges, said Speed, is helping Mississippians learn to prepare meals with fresh fruit and vegetables.

To that end, a lot of farmers’ markets are having chefs do cooking demonstrations and are distributing recipes with their produce. Ultimately, the produce can be prepared in a way that “tastes like traditional Southern meals but are healthier,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know how to cook fresh vegetables.”

But that should change as the link between the state’s SNAP program and farm sector strengthens. “Mississippi is ahead of the curve” in matching a market that needs consumers with consumers who need a market, the Ag Department’s Manning said.

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