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The Sun editorial: Food stamps and farmers markets: a mutual benefit

The farmers market in Hamburg is well-established, but could still benefit from utilizing the EBT/SNAP acceptance program offered by the USDA.
It’s a fact: fresh food is better for you, and many local farmers markets are also making it more affordable, thanks to the New York Farmers Market Supplemental Nutrition Assistance/Electronic Benefits Transfer program.

Locally, the Clinton-Bailey Market, the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, the Erie County Medical Center Farmers Market and the Lancaster Farmers Market are the only markets that offer the service, despite there being markets in Hamburg, Blasdell and several other Southtowns municipalities.

The NY Farmers Market EBT/Food Stamp/SNAP program is a partnership between the New York Farmers Market Federation, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Office of Temporary Disability Insurance, to help get fresh, healthy food into the hands of consumers who utilize benefits programs like food stamps, EBT and SNAP. The requirements for these programs vary, but can include people from all walks of life, including young or single mothers, veterans, people with disabilities, the elderly, working families struggling to make ends meet, or even young people who need a little help getting on their feet.

Recent data from the USDA showed that about 45 percent of food stamp benefits went to children under 18. Nine percent of recipients were 60 or older and nearly 10 percent were adults who were under 60, according to data for the fiscal year ending in 2012. In total, the program cost $78.4 billion that year. About four in 10 SNAP recipients live in a household in which at least one person has a job. Participation in that program rose sharply after the 2007 recession hit and unemployment rose. Food stamp participation has been slow to subside even as the economy recovers, showing about 46.6 million people receiving SNAP in an average month. The food insecurity rate, or the number of people who had trouble feeding their families at some point during the year, rose in 2008, but has not come back down. About 14.5 percent of Americans reported experiencing insecurity in the past year, and analysts said that number could have to do with cuts in benefits and hours, even for those who did not lose their jobs.

“A low-wage job supplemented with food stamps is becoming more common for the working poor,” said Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality. “Many of the U.S. jobs now being created are low- or minimum-wage — part-time or in areas such as retail or fast food — which means food stamp use will stay high for some time, even after unemployment improves.”

And the faces of food stamp-users have changed too, especially since the economic crash of 2007.

Since 2009, more than 50 percent of U.S. households receiving food stamps have been adults ages 18 to 59, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The food stamp program defines non-elderly adults as anyone younger than 60.

As recently as 1998, the working-age share of food stamp households was at a low of 44 percent, before the recessions in 2001 and 2007 pushed new enrollees into the program, according to the analysis by James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

By education, about 28 percent of food stamp households are headed by a person with at least some college training, up from 8 percent in 1980. Among those with four-year college degrees, the share rose from 3 percent to 7 percent. High-school graduates head the bulk of food stamp households at 37 percent, up from 28 percent. In contrast, food stamp households headed by a high-school dropout have dropped by more than half, to 28 percent.

Taking into account changing family structure, higher unemployment and policy expansions to the food stamp program, stagnant wages and income inequality explained 3.5 percent of the change in food stamp enrollment from 1980-2011. But from 2000-2011, wages and inequality accounted for 13 percent of the increase.

Several economists say food stamp rolls are likely to remain elevated for some time. Historically, there has been a lag before an improving unemployment rate leads to a substantial decline in food stamp rolls; the Congressional Budget Office has projected it could take 10 years.

“We do not expect income inequality stabilizing or declining in the absence of real wage growth or a significant reduction in unemployment and underemployment problems,” Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who reviewed the Labor and Commerce departments’ wage data, told the AP in January.

Full- and part-time workers employed year-round saw the fastest growth in food stamp participation since 1980, making up 17 percent and 7 percent of households, respectively. In contrast, the share of food stamp households headed by an unemployed person has remained largely unchanged, at 53 percent.

Many have criticized the food assistance programs for costing so much, but the fact is, it’s still necessary for a large number of Americans, many of those children. While Congress recently approved a bill that calls for cuts to the program of $8 million over 10 years, that bill, the farm bill, also changes how home heating assistance can help balance the family’s budget.

Another aspect of that bill also improved access to healthy food options, including farmer’s markets and local food stands. According to the USDA website, a farmers market must first ensure that it meets the SNAP definition of a farmers market, namely that it is a mult-stall operation that sells miostly farmer-produced goods, and get licensed as such by the USDA to accept SNAP benefits. That process includes setting up a USDA account, filling out an online application and mailing the USDA the required supporting documentation. There are even limited funds available for farmers markets to get the necessary equipment, should that present a financial burden, not only from the USDA but also from Rural Development programs and the Farm Service Agency.

It’s quick, it’s easy and it will help get healthy food into the mouths that need it, not to mention money from those sales into farmers’ pockets. And the availability of fresh, healthy food has a measurable impact on the health and obesity rates of people who are food insecure or depend on SNAP to buy it.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, One of the most comprehensive reviews of U.S. studies examining neighborhood disparities in food access found that neighborhood residents with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and reduced risk for obesity.

In addition, households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling – that is, they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger. While less expensive, energy-dense foods typically have lower nutritional quality and, because of overconsumption of calories, have been linked to obesity.

That said, an article in Slate quoted sources that questioned the availability of fresh food and its impact on health among the lower-income population. A 2011 study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine showed no connection between access to grocery stores and more healthful diets using 15 years’ worth of data from more than 5,000 people in five cities. One 2012 study showed that the local food environment did not influence the diet of middle-school children in California. Another 2012 study, published in Social Science and Medicine, used national data on store availability and a multiyear study of grade-schoolers to show no connection between food environment and diet.

But the connection between fresh food and health, regardless of the shopper’s income level, is indisputable. And if accepting SNAP and EBT at farmers markets means local vendors can benefit from these programs and those who use them can benefit from their wares, then that’s one step in the right direction.

Local farmers markets are wonderful places that showcase the bounty of Western New York’s farms and local vendors. And accepting these forms of food assistance is just one, small step toward making that bounty available to all, regardless of income bracket or socioeconomic status.

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