Food equity starts with farmers markets

Did you know that many farmers markets around the state accept FoodShare? FoodShare, also known as SNAP, EBT, Quest card, and formerly known as Food Stamps, is one of the most effective government programs for lifting people out of poverty. Having area farmers markets process FoodShare helps low income Wisconsinites access healthy foods, and it helps out our area farmers as well. However many farmers markets struggle to maintain FoodShare processing programs. There are multiple reasons for this, but a big part of it is funding.

Having FoodShare card readers available costs money. Tokens cost money. It also costs manpower. Preferable to the card swipe for tokens system would be for each market vendor to have a card swipe machine. There have been a lot of advancements in this technology, and lightweight, mobile card readers may help make a reader at each vendor stall a reality, but these often are dependent on WiFi. Some machines use cellular service, so would be usable in more locations, but this is often more cost prohibitive.

Food equity is about so much more than an economy of calories. People, regardless of income, all need food to survive… and they need to be getting real nutritional value from their food. Whole foods, the unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy that make up the vast majority of product sold at farmers markets, are best.

Wisconsin is known for its agricultural traditions, and yet so many farmers are struggling. Having more people buy local is vital to support our communities, but if some people have a currency that can only be spent at certain times in certain places, then that limits the potential for local food producers. In Central Wisconsin, many farmers markets are able to process FoodShare, but often times, FoodShare recipients are unfamiliar with this.

I write this as someone who has been on both sides of the vendor booth. I believe that every dimension of wellness begins with what we put on our plates. I am passionate about local foods because I see this as something that promotes my personal health, the health of my community, and the health of our planet. So much of my life before going on disability revolved around the local food scene.

These days, I am a FoodShare recipient who would rather spend the money I have for food on locally sourced items. In the winter, this doesn’t happen much. I use my FoodShare where I know it is always accepted. I use it for some delivery orders from Amazon, and for pickup orders at Pick ‘n Save. In the summer, I will use it at my local farmers market.

In some ways, I am not your typical low income person, and in other ways, I am pretty typical. People who experience hardship behave based on what they know. Ease and familiarity are things that we value. If I know I can use my FoodShare card any day of the week without hassle at a certain store, that is where I will go to use it. If it is a situation where sometimes it is accepted and sometimes it isn’t, I am not going to plan on shopping at that place with any regularity. Double dollar days (days where there is a dollar for dollar match — something offered at many farmers markets) are nice, but continuity is key.

What is one thing nearly everyone does when they go shopping for food? They make a list. That list is a plan for how money will be spent. It is all the more vital to have a plan when you live on a budget.

If someone doesn’t live near where they shop, then transportation factors into a budget of both time and money. If I arrive somewhere to find out that my money is no good there, I am not likely to return.

Throughout much of the past decade, I have been at many a table where promoting FoodShare use at farmers markets was the topic being discussed. How do we get FoodShare recipients to shop at farmers markets, and perhaps more importantly, how do we get more people in general to buy local? Continuity is key.

It is hard to compete with stores that are open and able to accept all forms of payment every day of the week. Accessibility is about so much more than what forms of payment are accepted. Regular availability, regular hours that include hours when working people are available, convenience, and amenities such as restrooms and benches are also factors. More and more, pickup and delivery options are expected by consumers.

Transportation is often a factor for low income people. Some people cannot afford their own vehicle, or like me, don’t drive due to a disability. When you rely on someone else for transportation, you look at options that are convenient for your driver. One stop shopping becomes the goal. Many people cannot get everything they need from an area farmers market. I consider myself fortunate because I live within walking distance of my local farmers market, so when it is open, it is often the most convenient option for me.

There is good news on the horizon for FoodShare recipients in Clark, Marathon, Portage and Wood counties: FoodShare payments are being accepted at markets in each of these counties. What days, which market locations, how the payments are handled, and whether or not other promotions are offered are all being decided upon, but as soon as I know more, readers of Middle Wisconsin will know.

I have a personal ask of both my fellow FoodShare recipients and the people leading up the effort to promote FoodShare at our area farmers markets: be there!

Hope to see you all at the farmers market.