Fare for the Common Good: Farmers Markets as Public Square
David Nicholson was drawn to the healthy food movement because, as he says simply, “I really like to eat.” His passion soon became a calling to help others gain access to the same good food he loves, and to help growers and markets thrive too.
In 2010 Nicholson, now a consultant to people and organizations in the food justice movement, worked at the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis. While there, the intertwined challenges of creating access for individuals while ensuring producers can earn what they need from market sales became ever more clear to him. To address the challenges he hatched the idea for Market Bucks, an incentive match to encourage people to use their SNAP benefits to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. The Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota got excited about the idea. In partnership with the City of Minneapolis and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the matching program was launched in 2010 and continues to expand to additional markets throughout the state.
“Food justice is for the most part related to larger questions of economic justice,” said Nicholson. “I mean not only so that people have equal ability to afford food that promotes health and wellness [but] also for people who produce that food—farm owners, migrant workers, people working in factories—to be able to earn a reasonable living doing those things.”
SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps,” is distributed using an EBT card, a card like a debit card. Nicholson realized that installing EBT machines at the markets would be key to opening pathways for lower income people using SNAP to shop there. Because farmers markets are traditionally cash-based operations, businesses comprising many individual vendors, it takes some “hand-holding” to get the system for accepting SNAP up and running, Nicholson said – for example, advice on selecting a card services provider; getting permission from the USDA to accept SNAP; how to train market staff; how to set up accounting procedures.
About five years ago Nicholson convened a monthly “Farmers Market Coffee and Call,” as peer-to-peer support, originally for organizers and stakeholders receiving grants from the EBT & Market Bucks Initiative, formerly housed at the MN Department of Human Services. The calls are now open to all market vendors, managers, organizers and public health professionals and continue to be funded by the Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives at MDH.
In what can sometimes feel like a lonely arena, Nicholson says, the calls serve as a kind of “glue” for market staffers and supporters across the state. Usually, between 10 and 20 people take part in each call, not always the same individuals. It’s a forum to share ideas and resources, ask questions and learn from one another. In fact, Nicholson finds people may hear differently when a suggestion comes from someone doing the same job at another farmers market rather than an “expert” like him.
For example, he’d tried without much luck to spark connections between farmers markets and public health systems or networks like food shelves.
But on a recent monthly call, Jessica Joyce, manager of the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market, described a crossover opportunity that worked at her farmers market. She’d arranged for local representatives from WIC (targeted federal food benefits for women, infants and children) to staff the Power of Produce (POP) table. Both programs are aimed at families with young children to promote and give access to good nutrition.
“So Jess starts talking about WIC people being at their POP table and why it’s great and you could feel the difference in energy when the idea came from a peer in the trenches doing the work who can share the excitement,” Nicholson said.
Farmers markets won’t solve all the world’s problems, Nicholson knows, but he says they are a unique venue where disparate segments of the community – food producers and consumers, affluent and low-income, rural and urban – gather together with a shared interest in healthy fresh food.
Even the presence of SNAP and EBT at farmers markets can be a learning moment.
“I hear stories from farmers market staff that relatively affluent people come up to the EBT table to sign up for SNAP and Market Bucks [not realizing it’s a program for people of lower incomes]. When you are accepting SNAP-EBT in the most public of public squares, it facilitates the conversation around what it means to need access to good food. It makes people think differently about the role of government in providing access to low-income people.
“At the market you see that beneficiaries of government assistance programs are your next-door neighbor, or the retired person who lives down the street, or the person at your church. It becomes about making sure that everyone in your community is taken care of,” he said.
You can find a farmers market near you that accepts Market Bucks using this online map.