Getting healthy food to low-income households and children is a priority for first lady Michelle Obama, but red tape, suspicion and a lack of manpower have kept many farmers from selling fresh fruits and vegetables to thousands who need them most.
Last year, the Department of Agriculture announced a $4 million initiative to bridge what is often the biggest divide between farmers markets and recipients of aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the successor to the federal food stamp program: the lack of technology at many markets. SNAP uses electronic debit cards, so if a market can't accept credit cards, it can't process SNAP purchases.
Despite the $4 million the USDA has pledged to get markets wireless debit card machines, few markets have accepted the offer. By the time the program was supposed to be wrapping up in late February, only $263,900 had been spent.
Today, of the nearly 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., fewer than half accept SNAP payments. At the same time, SNAP has grown significantly in recent years - more than one in seven Americans now receive government help to buy food.
The number of direct-sales farms and farmers markets who accept SNAP has quintupled - rising from 750 to 3,824 - over the past five years. But officials say they need to do better.
"Our goal is to close the gap," said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Low-income folks will often buy foods that are calorie dense. We want to try to nudge them in the direction of farmers markets and purchasing healthy, less-processed foods. This is part of that strategy."
Concannon acknowledged the agency started the process late, offering the equipment last May, just as markets ramped up for the busiest part of their season.
Jan Walters, a member of the Farmers Market Coalition board who oversees a national task force on SNAP, said some states didn't have the personnel or administrative ability to promote the program and disburse the money. And farmers said that the paperwork and ongoing fees associated with the card machines - which also accept bank debit and credit cards - often were too much, she said. Seven states - Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania - declined the funding outright.
Pennsylvania turned down nearly $180,000 because an earlier 2010 federal grant left the state with a surplus of card-reading machines and not enough interest from markets in using them. Sixty-seven machines are still available free to qualified farmers markets across the state, said Donna Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare.
"The people who use it, they say they like it," she said. "What's preventing people from grabbing them up, I don't know."
In 2012, Iowa farmers chalked up more than $950,000 in sales on the wireless card machines the state has been promoting since 2005. More than 90% of those were purchases from regular debit and credit card users, said Walters, who before her retirement ran the state's SNAP electronic debit card program.
Walters, now a board member of the Farmers Market Coalition and a farmer herself - she and her husband accept SNAP payments at their stall in the Des Moines Farmers Market - said many farmers are wary of federal aid or have been scared off by the work of applying for the program. Many markets rely on a small or entirely volunteer staff, making extra paperwork and accounting burdensome, she said.
"It would literally break my heart if that money was not available next year," she said. "Because there is a huge need. We just need to get past these few barriers."
In May, USDA officials announced they were expanding the program so individual farmers could apply for the machines. That, coupled with educational seminars and a push on state departments to use the money, has made it more successful, Concannon said. In the past two months, 330 new markets and farmers have signed on. He said the agency hopes to expand the funding and the program to help farmers complete paperwork and get enrolled.
In the Paso del Norte region of Texas and New Mexico, La Semilla Food Center, a non-profit that advocates healthful eating and supporting local agriculture, has helped two New Mexico farmers markets this year get grants and complete the paperwork to become approved to accept SNAP. El Paso's downtown market is on track to join them later this year.
Aaron Sharratt, the organization's founder, says fast-food restaurants make up half the eateries in the area. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, more than 73% of adults in the area say they don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. Federal data show that low-income families eat less nutritious food than the general population.
"The border region is pretty notorious for a lack of veggies and fruit in the diet," Sharratt said. "But the interest and desire - I think it's there."
Las Cruces senior planner Andy Hume, who oversees downtown activities such as the city's Farmers & Crafts Market, said he thinks so, too.
Already the Las Cruces market, which stretches a half-mile and includes more than 300 vendors, accepts vouchers through the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, but hasn't been able to process the SNAP cards. It saw $90,000 in voucher sales of vegetables and food last year, Hume said - an indication of both the need and community interest. According to Census figures, about 18% of households in Dona Ana county, where Las Cruces is located, used food stamps at some point in 2011.
"To give the opportunity to people who need healthy food - it's just wonderful," Hume said.
Meghan Hoyer, USA TODAY