"Is this where you go for EBT?" a well-dressed 64-year-old Santa Fe woman hesitantly asks Sondra Gadell of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, who is manning a booth set up in the corner of the SFFM Pavilion.
The bustling Saturday-morning scene is familiar to the shopper. The self-employed real estate consultant has shopped at SFFM for years. But this is her first time using little wooden $1 coins obtained with a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Electronic Benefits Transfer card to buy her fresh greens.
Between January of this year and last, the amount of little wooden coins—formerly called food stamps—that SNAP recipients redeemed at the market nearly tripled.
The increase probably is partly attributable to a state program in effect at the end of 2010 that matched SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets. The matching program is part of statewide efforts to draw more low-income folks to farmers markets—an effort that appears to be especially aggressive in Santa Fe. Statistics show only Las Cruces farmers markets received more money in 2010 from recipients of Women, Infants and Children benefits, another food subsidy program.
AmeriCorps Youth Food Cadre members at Earth Care in Santa Fe are spearheading outreach efforts to educate low-income families about local food's benefits, and SFFM has a University of New Mexico dietetic intern working to increase use of WIC farmers market benefits.
Although the numbers appear to show these aggressive efforts are working, some farmers and SFFM staff are noticing an unexpected trend among SNAP and WIC users at the market.
"My thought in dealing with most of the people who come and use their card is they're people who, if they had the money, they'd be shopping there anyway," Gadell, an administrative assistant, says. "The south side, the real low-income people who have multiple children who have been on SNAP for a while, I think that's a segment of SNAP we'll probably never reach. They're still going to be buying store-brand stuff, damaged cans and that kind of thing."
Matt Romero, owner of Romero Farms in Dixon, whose early spring offerings include various types of potatoes, spinach, arugula and Japanese turnips, says the increase in SNAP and WIC users has been a great boost to his business, and has allowed him to do his part by giving those shoppers discounts. But he's noticed those shoppers don't fit his expectations of food-subsidy recipients.
"I don't know how to put this, but there's a lot of people using it that I would have never guessed," Romero says. "I like to be delicate about that, but it seems like you can't tell anymore by looking at anybody, who's using food stamps."
It's possible that, despite efforts to reach the most impoverished SNAP and WIC recipients, the surge in food benefits use at SFFM reflects farmers market patrons becoming eligible for food benefits more than SNAP and WIC recipients branching out to the farmers market. The past few years have seen an uptick in SNAP use nationwide but, as SFR previously reported, New Mexico saw the biggest increase of any state over the past year.
There's a very obvious reason why families barely scraping by might not avail themselves of the bright-green sunflower sprouts and multicolored potatoes that create a delicious-looking tableau at Saturday's market: price.
"My acupuncturist said to eat a lot of greens. Well, here it's fresher, but I can buy that at Trader Joe's all chopped up and ready to use and I'm going, gosh, this is twice as much as Trader Joe's or Sunflower [Farmers Market]," a SNAPper who asked that SFR not use her name says.
Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says while local food is best from a public health and sustainability standpoint, it's not always realistic for low-income families.
"There's controversy certainly about the ecological benefits of local, sustainable food because there's something to be said for the economies of scale if, ultimately, we're trying to feed the people who need it the most: the low-income people," Friedman says. "The food will remain cheaper if it's harvested out of some giant factory farm, and even though it's shipped, it's still cheaper than the locally grown food."
Santa Fe documentarian and nutritionist Shira Potash and her husband, Yoav, survived off mostly organic food on a SNAP budget for Food Stamped, a 2010 documentary filmed partly in Santa Fe. Eating fresh even without shopping at the farmers market was both challenging and hunger-inducing, Potash tells SFR.
"It takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy and effort, not to mention accessibility and resources," Potash says. "A lot of people don't have access to a full kitchen. Then, on top of that, you need to have the knowledge of how to cook and how to shop and how to plan. So I think that it's not realistic."
But price can't be the only element keeping low-income shoppers away because both the SNAP and WIC systems have money that is simply not being used. As of press time, approximately $5,000 worth of SNAP coins usable only at SFFM are floating around somewhere unspent, Gadell says. Farmers assure SFR that they exchange their coins for cash at the end of each market day, so it seems that shoppers are holding onto unused coins. More surprising is the low redemption rate for WIC checks, SFFM Operations Manager Miguel Gallegos tells SFR. At the end of 2009, only 48 percent of WIC farmers market checks issued were used. Yet WIC checks expire in November of each year.
Laura McCann, the UNM dietetics student interning at SFFM, says her work has increased the redemption rate in Santa Fe through a couple of measures (NM Department of Health wasn't able to provide the newest redemption data for comparison). Instead of picking up WIC checks at Santa Fe County Health Office or La Familia Medical Center, the recipients now have to come to SFFM to get them the first time. McCann leads groups through the market, introduces them to a Spanish-speaking farmer and gives them recipes for local foods that are abundant at that time.
The recipe idea came out of study results released in December of last year by the New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association. The research, funded by a US Department of Agriculture grant, sought to discover what obstacles keep low-income families in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties from patronizing farmers markets. The researchers found that residents of more rural Rio Arriba County, many of whom had grown food themselves at times, had a better appreciation for the inherent benefits of local foods. The price and inconvenience of buying local food are bigger deterrents for urban Santa Feans, the study finds.
"While most urban subjects had a general impression that local food was probably better than the conventional foods they get at grocery stores, they were not necessarily willing to pay a higher price for it, or put in extra effort to find it," the findings read.
McCann said transportation issues also were a major barrier for WIC recipients. Through her program, she provides information on bus schedules. She has been trying to secure parking validation for WIC recipients shopping at the farmers market, but says the city "won't budge" on that. Potash says one program in Watts, Calif., that she discovered in her research, helped make fresh food more accessible to low-income families. A farmer stationed himself at an elementary school during pick-up time one day a week to give parents an easy shopping opportunity.
"[SNAP and WIC recipients] want to feed their children healthy, but sometimes I think quantity might override quality," Gadell says. "We've tried English-speaking radio, Spanish-speaking radio, everything. We could be spending all these ad dollars for nothing."