Durham County

Change puts food-stamp purchases at some farmers markets in jeopardy

Anna Sullivan, right, helps a customer at the Durham Farmer’s Market on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The women work for Lyon Farms in Creedmoor, which is a participant in the farmer’s market Double Bucks program benefiting low-income residents.
Anna Sullivan, right, helps a customer at the Durham Farmer’s Market on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The women work for Lyon Farms in Creedmoor, which is a participant in the farmer’s market Double Bucks program benefiting low-income residents. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

At least two Triangle farmers markets hope to avoid shutting down a program that lets people buy fresh produce with federal food stamps.

The Durham Farmers Market has used Novo Dia Group’s equipment and service since 2014 to serve low-income customers receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, dollars, manager Mary Yost said. The South Durham Farmers Market uses a different SNAP program and isn’t affected.

But Novo Dia Group is shutting down July 31, forcing Durham, Chapel Hill and 43 other markets across the state — among 1,749 markets nationwide — to buy new equipment, Yost said. It’s unknown how many individual farmers have their own systems, state agriculture officials said.

MarketLink offers free equipment to farmers that would allow them to accept credit, debit and SNAP through EBT. vbridges@newsobserver.com

A new system could cost $1,000 or more, Yost said. Stopping the program — even temporarily — is not an option, she said.

“We might have to eat that cost if we can’t swipe a card,” Yost said. “From our perspective, it is a problem on our end. We don’t have the equipment that is needed, so we don’t want to penalize customers and community members who want to access fresh, local food.”

A long-term solution may not be easy. Many markets and farmers didn’t add SNAP sales until federal grants made it free or low-cost to buy equipment and processing services.

The nonprofit National Association of Farmer’s Market Nutrition Programs launched the first affordable SNAP system — MarketLink — in 2013. The Farmers Market Coalition took over the program in 2014, replacing MarketLink with Novo Dia’s Mobile Market+ system.

Mobile uses a wireless Apple device and app to connect securely to the SNAP payment system, avoiding additional fees. That complicates the change, since there are no other Apple-based products on the market.

Local effect mixed

Roughly 85 percent of the nation’s 8,687 farmers markets accept SNAP payments, racking up $22.4 million in sales last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

More than 240 farmers and 55 farmers markets participate in the SNAP program in North Carolina, a 305 percent increase since 2012. The amount of SNAP dollars being spent rose 204 percent over that period, to $328,215.

Eight markets are authorized to accept SNAP payments in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham and Wake County.

The program lets farmers with their own equipment swipe a customer’s SNAP card for purchases. Markets with a program covering many farmers charge the card for a specific dollar amount and give wooden tokens to the customer to spend at participating farm stands. Farmers turn the tokens in to the market later to get paid.

Many area markets also offer “double bucks” programs that match every $10 to $25 that recipients spend during each visit.

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The markets with SNAP programs in Wake County did not respond to requests for comment, but Kevin Hardison, an N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services marketing specialist, said he had heard of a few Raleigh farmers that will be affected.

The Carrboro Farmers Market does not use the system, market manager Molly Vaughan said, and the news has delayed their plans to upgrade the old, wired system.

“We might still try and see if there’s something else out there wireless that would work for us, but this also makes me pause and [think about not doing] anything,” Vaughan said. “It’s a little concerning overall.”

Change creates questions

The Farmers Market Coalition lost its bid to continue managing the SNAP program this year after the federal government awarded the $1.3 million contract to a new company.

That company, Financial Transaction Management, decided not to keep Novo Dia Group. The decision, plus strict regulations and expensive security measures, led to Novo Dia’s decision to shut down, coalition officials said.

FTM’s application portal was expected to be online by July 14, but markets and farmers haven’t received any information about it. The company has replaced Novo Dia with financial transactions giant First Data.

FTM appears to have been established in October 2017. An online listing at GovTribe.com describes it as an e-business with one employee, registered agent Angela Sparrow, whose office is located at Intelligent Office, a company that rents virtual, part-time and full-time office space.

FTM’s primary address is a condominium in Reston, Va., owned by Jiju Nair, an information technology project manager, according to Fairfax County, Va., property records. Nair bought the condo in June 2017, records show.

A call to the company’s number was not returned, however, Sparrow did email a response July 9 to The Washington Post, saying, “I am aware of the current deficiencies in the farmers market merchant world and fully intend to work with my partners with a maniacal focus on executing in a manner that will quickly resolve this long overdue problem.”

Durham resident Mary Kate Cardin (left) talks with Jenny Elander about the Double Bucks program Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, at the Durham Farmer’s Market on Foster Street. The Double Bucks program gives customers shopping with EBT cards – federal food benefits – and other vouchers up to $10 extra to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

Asking for patience

Farmers markets are concerned that the weeks-long application process ahead could leave them unable to serve SNAP customers at the height of the growing season.

Applications can be submitted once the system is in place, but a June federal release noted each application will have to be checked for completion before being considered for eligibility. Eligible programs will have two new options: a no-cost, EBT-only device or one that charges fees but also accepts credit and debit cards.

USDA-SNAP program analyst Patrick Kelley sent an email out Friday explaining the problem and the concerns.

“[W]e continue to look for viable alternatives to avoid having markets and farmers utilizing these [programs] experience an interruption in their ability to accept SNAP in the coming weeks,” Kelley said. “We ask for your patience as we work with and hear from stakeholders regarding options.”

Chapel Hill market manager Kate Underhill said SNAP sales make up a small but important part of their business. She noted the system also served other customers by letting them buy tokens with their credit and debit cards if they forget to bring cash to the market.

The market’s board will meet Tuesday to discuss next steps, Underhill said, but she’s hopeful the USDA will work something out.

“The service has been great, so I was completely thrown when [the company] said they were going to be done at the end of the month,” she said. “I’m hoping we’ll have some way to keep doing what we’re doing, and have the service be as good as it’s been.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb