By John O'Connell
Statistics show Idaho isn't keeping pace with the steady national growth in new farmers' markets and farmers' markets accepting payments through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
In 2011, the first year that Idaho began tracking farmers' markets set up to take SNAP payments, 10 of the state's 57 markets accepted SNAP, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. This season, SNAP is available at 12 of 54 markets.
ISDA officials note some Idaho markets have consolidated, and the agency may be unaware of other new markets. They believe barriers have slowed the spread of SNAP access at markets including: time involved to become SNAP certified, lack of electric outlets for machinery and lack of staff to run benefit cards and dispense wooden tokens used for SNAP market purchases.
"A lot of markets are interested, but once they look into it they realize there are still some logistical challenges of getting it set up," said Kim Polzin, an ISDA trade specialist who predicts SNAP access will grow at Idaho markets.
Nationally, USDA estimates there are 8,144 farmers' markets, up from 7,175 in 2011. In 2008, about 750 farmers markets accepted SNAP. Currently, 3,846 U.S. markets take SNAP, USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon told Capital Press. Concannon hopes to exceed 4,000 U.S. markets accepting SNAP by the end of this season.
"We've made a lot of gains in the last three or four years, but we're anxious to close that gap fully," Concannon said. "Where markets have taken (SNAP) up, they've been very positive about it. It's good for the consumer and really good for the small-time producer."
In Idaho, 224,477 residents -- 14.2 percent of the population -- were enrolled in SNAP in July, down from 229,535 a year ago. Idaho Department of Health and Welfare allocates $1,400 per year to cover markets' costs of running SNAP machinery, said spokesman Tom Shanahan, but had to turn down $44,779 in FY 2012 federal funds to equip more markets to take SNAP due to the lack of new, eligible markets and the cost of administering the grant and revising contracts.
To spur SNAP sales, Boise's Capital City Public Market partners with the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, which doubles the money for SNAP customers making purchases, up to $20. Nonetheless, SNAP sales, which totaled about $15,000 last season, are declining, said market Executive Director Lisa Duplessie. She serves on the Idaho Farmers Market Association board, which published a manual to promote SNAP payments at farmers markets and is working to document steps to help more markets take SNAP.
Moscow's Friendship Square market has grown its customer base by mailing market information to local SNAP recipients. In Rexburg, Market Manager Zak Noriega began accepting SNAP about a month and a half ago and said SNAP already represents 20 percent of his sales. Market surveys show SNAP has also brought many new customers to the market.
Idaho Falls Farmers Market manager Kim Little is looking to Rexburg as a template for starting her own SNAP program, which she hopes to have running by next season, but believes staffing limitations still pose a hurdle.
At the Pocatello farmers' market, SNAP represents less than 1 percent of Matthew Bowman's organic produce sales, and Wendy Swore has better luck using the market's program to enroll SNAP customers in community-supported agriculture, which provides share holders produce throughout the year.