It's only been four years since farmers markets across Alaska began quietly implementing electronic banking capable of accepting food stamps, but that short period has seen major gains.
Last year, 10 markets in the state introduced debit card readers, a small change put in place primarily to give Alaskans who use Quest cards -- the delivery system for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds -- the ability to purchase fruits, vegetables and even plant starters. The idea is to that ensure low-income Alaskans who use the program, better known as food stamps, have access to produce at the markets.
Consider the gains so far: When the first two machines were installed in 2011, revenue for the two pilot markets totaled more than $13,000. In the three seasons since, it's expanded enormously. In 2012, five markets brought in more than $50,000. The next year, the number of markets participating (10) and revenue ($114,000) both doubled.
The combined effort of three state agencies -- the Division of Agriculture, Department of Public Assistance and the Department of Health and Social Services' obesity-prevention program -- helped get the machines into the markets.
Expect additional expansion this year. At least 11 markets across the state have been confirmed for the program, including markets in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Sitka and Bethel.
They're hoping for more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it a priority to get more of the machines and SNAP benefits to farmers markets, according to Amy Pettit, development specialist with the Alaska Division of Agriculture. This year, markets and farm stands will have access to Marketlink, a program that makes it easier for farmers and farm stands to accept SNAP benefits by giving them access to iPhones and readers capable of accepting the cards. It also makes it easier for farmers to sign up for the program by streamlining fees and improving access.
The idea for implementing the readers started in 2011, after the government moved away from issuing paper "food stamps" for assistance, moving to an electronic card-reading system. But with most farmers accepting only cash or check, it became near-impossible for people using the benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers.
Diane Peck, a public health specialist with the state obesity prevention program, said there was a growing movement in the Lower 48 to use electronic machines at farmers markets, and she figured Alaska should join them.
The Spenard and Homer farmers markets were the first to implement the program. Almost $5,000 of the $13,000 in revenue that first year was solely SNAP benefits. That proved that it worked, Peck said, clearly bringing low-income individuals to the market to purchase healthy food, with the money going directly to local farmers.
A study of the program conducted in 2012 found that people shop at the farmer's markets for a variety of reasons, including the health benefits and a desire to support local farmers. She said when the users of the SNAP program were polled, their answers were identical.
"This just provides another opportunity for low-income Alaskans to have access to healthy foods," she said.
Limits to what people can buy remain, just as in the grocery store. Only food that can be prepared can be purchased. For example, SNAP benefits can go toward buying a loaf of bread but not toward buying a freshly fried doughnut.
Kim Varner Wetzel, food assistance chair for the Spenard Farmer's Market, said despite some early hiccups, the program has been hugely successful. In 2013 the market brought in $8,000 in SNAP benefits and $14,000 in debit sales.
"That's the win-win for our market," Wetzel said.
The market doesn't keep track of individual vendor sales, but Wetzel said farmers have been pleased. "It's hard to say how it couldn't be the best economic development tool," Wetzel said. "Do you want to send them to the gas station to get Doritos or go to the market to get two bunches of carrots?"
The Spenard Farmers Market, which opens Saturday, is looking to lure even more SNAP users to the market this season by offering match days. Because of a grant from the state of Alaska, every Saturday will be a match day, doubling the buying power of SNAP customers. Wetzel said match days are incredibly popular, with total spending up to 10 times higher than a nonmatch day. Last year, there were just four of them.
Pettit said the matches help fight the perception that using SNAP benefits at farmers markets is more expensive than going to the grocery store.
This year, the state is putting $50,000 into the match program. But there are questions whether that will continue. While Gov. Sean Parnell hasn't signed off on Alaska's 2015 operating budget yet, there is some indication that funding in the obesity prevention program will be sharply cut, meaning the match program could be severely limited.
But Pettit expects the program to move forward.
"We're going to be regrouping to keep this project moving forward outside of state government," she said. "We're hopeful to demonstrate real need for the program."
Reach Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com.
By SUZANNA CALDWELL