By Shelley Brosius, Community Market & Outreach Coordinator
Every day on the Mobile Farmers Market, our market team sells fresh fruits and vegetables to Baltimore residents. Many of these residents pay for this produce with their SNAP benefits via their EBT card – acronyms that might be foreign to you if you are not a SNAP participant. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (although in Maryland it is officially known as the Food Supplement Program, or FSP) and is commonly referred to as food stamps. These benefits are no longer distributed in paper form, however, but rather assigned to program participants via their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card, also known as an Independence card throughout Maryland.
For a high percentage of Baltimore households, SNAP benefits comprise a critical proportion of their grocery shopping budget. (According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Maryland Food Environment map, in 2013, over 24 million dollars were redeemed via SNAP/EBT in the 21213 zip code alone!) However, these benefits are disbursed on a certain day each month, which means these funds often run low on our customers’ cards when it gets close to that disbursement date. We often see our regular customers weighing the decision to use the last of their monthly benefits on a pound of Early Girl slicer tomatoes or a quart of fresh, sweet peaches, knowing they might have a few days left before the next month’s benefits become available. Those without any benefits left on their card apologize for not being able to buy anything, and then beg us to bring them some melons and cucumbers the next week when their card is full again so they don’t have to miss out on the season’s bounty. We have the rare opportunity to see the program in action and to witness the role it plays in helping put fresh food on participants’ tables.
The trouble is that the program is changing. Ultimately, the change is a good one: Maryland currently disburses SNAP benefits within a 10-day period each month. This places a high level of stress on many local grocery stores which experience a high volumes of traffic during this 10-day disbursement period, resulting in depleted stock which in turn limits the quality of SNAP purchases. Maryland is currently implementing a change to increase this 10-day disbursement period to a 23-day period. This means stores will experience less of a rush and be able to better stock their shelves, resulting in higher quality items made available for those purchasing with SNAP benefits. Where the change becomes complicated is that during the transition, some families—especially those with names closer to the end of the alphabet—may have to wait up to 5 additional days for their SNAP benefits to be made available on their EBT cards. And this doesn’t just happen once – it will happen three times over the next five months as new days are added to the distribution schedule until the period is finally stretched to 23 days by January 2016. Most participants will feel the strain of being without benefits on those extra days, and we can anticipate that most will be frustrated at having to endure this strain three separate times.
Let me reiterate that the change is a good one with many positive benefits for both SNAP grocers and SNAP grocery shoppers alike. But in the meantime, those of involved in SNAP retail must step forward and help ensure that our customers are aware of the change. I’m pleased with the efforts from leaders in the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative at the Office of Sustainability and hope to augment their efforts through individualized communication with our Mobile Farmers Market customers using SNAP benefits. We have direct relationships with folks who will be affected by this change, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to help these customers with the transition. We’re committed to improving food access, which means we aren’t just in it to sell fruits and vegetables. Our sales strategy involves a level of personal exchange that provides us with the unique opportunity to engage in real conversations with SNAP participants. For the next month or so, we will focus these conversations around the transition and help to ensure that our neighbors are equipped with an awareness of the change and the resources available to them to help them manage the transition.
*Real Food Farm is located within the 21213 zip code, and we work closely with community partners to identify key strategic Mobile Farmers Market locations that are easily accessible to our neighbors living within the 21213 zip code.