Expanding Access to FarmShares

I recently attended a workshop conducted by the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) that focused on strengthening farmers markets. Tammy Hinman of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) spoke to the group about how to set up markets to receive Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT cards (also called SNAP benefits, formerly Food Stamps). It turns out that not only is it relatively painless to get your market running with EBT, it’s also possible to set up a farm or single person to accept benefits as long as the USDA approves their application.  Well, that got me thinking.

I want to provide sustainable food to communities that need and want it, not just those who can afford it. The basis of the CSA model used to be one of a community farm: everybody works for their share. Now, it’s a pre-pay FarmShare model, one that leaves out families and individuals that cannot afford to put up a large sum of money all at once.

We’ve organized our share options in an attempt to accommodate those who cannot pay for a full share all at once. Though it’s a step in the right direction, it still doesn’t include many low income families and individuals.

Due to USDA regulations, one cannot pre-pay for food with EBT and cannot enter into any kind of contract with a provider. That means the FarmShare model needs to change for EBT members. Other farms (such as Uprising Farm in Oregon, read an interview with them here), have worked out a system with their members that functions as a legal EBT FarmShare program.  Their shares are paid for per week, and members are expected to come pick up their vegetables and swipe their EBT cards but are not bound by a contract to do so.

This system is ideal for the FarmShare members, but the farm loses some of its start-up funds at the beginning of the year. That can be a real turn-off, especially for farmers who are just starting out and don’t have savings to back up their seed and supply needs. However, by accepting members who pay upfront for their shares as well as members paying on a week-by-week basis, we could get our spring start up funds as well as provide shares for low income families receiving EBT benefits.

And so… I want County Rail Farm to accept food stamps/SNAP/EBT benefits for our FarmShares. I don’t know yet if we’ll be able to provide full shares to members who wish to pay with EBT in 2011, but we can get things rolling. I feel strongly that everyone should have the option to become a member of FarmShare programs, and we can do that by providing a variety of payment options.

I’m super excited to say that we are in the process of expanding access to County Rail Farm’s FarmShare program. With a little luck and a lot of paperwork, we will be able to offer both regular memberships (following the pre-pay FarmShare model) and low income memberships with EBT cards.

*** UPDATE! We WILL be offering a few SNAP shares this year! ***

– Tracy