SNAP Shares – How and Why?

Periodically, we get an email or a phone call from a farm or organization around the country asking about our SNAP shares: how they work, is the program successful, etc. I thought I’d post my most recent email answering some of those questions. More general information and how you can join (*We have 4 more spots in our 2013 CSA for SNAP members – spread the word!*) can be found on our SNAP Share page.

A brief overview of our SNAP Share program: We offer a small number of shares every year that can be paid for with SNAP benefits (i.e. Food Stamps). Members pay for their share weekly, as legally we can’t accept SNAP benefits as pre-payment. While this isn’t a traditional CSA practice (the purpose of a CSA is to provide the farmer with funds early in the season), it’s ideal for our members. Because of this weekly incremental payment system, we ask for a cash deposit at the beginning of the season as insurance for us – if SNAP members miss a week or two, we take those payments out of their deposit. We’ve offered SNAP Shares successfully since 2011, and look forward to continuing to provide local produce for low income families in our community.

What need did you notice in your community when you decided to offer the SNAP shares (what motivated you to offer them in the first place)?
Margaret and I have both been on SNAP benefits ourselves before, and we have a number of friends that have been or are currently on them. We know from experience that they don’t go very far and that it’s difficult to buy local produce as it’s more expensive and often less accessible. We wanted to offer shares to low income families to make local food easy to find, and we discount them because our shares (CSA shares in general) are just too expensive for families on SNAP benefits.

Did you have others coming to you with interest in a share but not being able to afford it?
We began our CSA and SNAP Share program our very first season in Montana, which was also in the middle of our first year in Montana. We wanted to provide SNAP shares from the get go, and quickly found that few CSAs accept SNAP payments. I think many families and individuals on SNAP benefits don’t even think to look at CSAs as a source of produce until it’s presented (at farmers market, in the grocery/natural food store, in the coop, etc).

How does the donation system for supporting those shares work out for you?
Almost no one donates unless solicited, unfortunately. We sold t-shrits to raise funds last year, and with a couple small donations (all friends of ours), were able to make up for the initial discount we automatically give and drop the price farther. We secured a big donation from a local philanthropist this year, which allows us to cut SNAP shares by almost half, but I don’t think donations are a sustainable way to make up for the discount. We’ve thought about sliding scale shares, but without 10-30% of your members willing to pay top dollar, it doesn’t work. In the future, we’d like to work with Wholesome Wave or a different organization to double SNAP dollars when they’re used with our CSA. They do it farmers markets and the like, and they’re interested in doing it for CSAs, but they’re dependent on funding and not taking new applications at this time.

What hoops did you have to jump through to get involved in the SNAP program in the first place?
Getting certified to accept SNAP benefits is simple. At least it was in Montana. We sent in an application though the MT Dept of Public Health (as a “farm stand” – there is no application for CSAs), and about a month later we had our machine to swipe cards. It’s all free, it’s pretty easy, and you just have to go through your state department (as SNAP is allocated on a state by state basis).

How did you determine how much to discount the SNAP shares from the full price?
Our first season, we discounted shares by 20% because we knew that they were too expensive for SNAP members and decided to just eat that loss. We found that even with that discount, almost all our SNAP members paid with cash or check at the end of the month when their benefits ran out. So the following year we sold t-shirts as a fundraiser to discount them farther (and to make back that 20% loss on our part). It was successful and we were able to discount the shares by slightly more than 20%. We had fewer members paying cash at the end of the month and felt like we were able to offer our shares at an affordable price for low income members. As noted above, I’d like to use a double buck program to cut the share cost in half every year, making the shares truly affordable.

We are very proud to offer our SNAP Shares and truly believe in fresh local food for everyone. If you have other questions about how our shares work, check out our SNAP Share page or get in touch with us directly. The more farms and organizations that can offer affordable and accessible produce to low income families and individuals, the stronger and healthier our community is.

County Rail Bling!

Now you can show your County Rail pride and support our SNAP program in one go! Thanks to the awesome folks at Zoo City Apparel, we have a selection of great t-shirts for sale.

$14 for Farm Share members, $16 for everyone else. 100% of the profit helps lower the cost of our SNAP Shares. All colors come in a variety of sizes, and the blue and purple shirts come in unisex as well as ladies wide neck styles.

Steve (silver cotton), Evan (asphalt cotton), Robin (purple 50/50 ladies), Margaret (blue 50/50 ladies, Tracy (gold 50/50 unisex).

Thanks Steve, Robin, and Evan for being in our t-shirt photoshoot!

Let us know if you’d like one of your own – we have a limited supply so don’t wait. We’ll also have them at market (starting Saturday May 5! …which is also Ke$ha the goat’s due date).

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