Finding Out About Food Stamps

If you're on the email list to get the Farmer's Market Newsletter (sign up in the market office), or if you've been to the market recently and seen the cool signs, then you know the good news - that the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market recently started accepting the Bridge Card, also known as the EBT card, for what used to be known as food stamps.   

If you don't know what EBT is, you're part of a steadily shrinking population that is not receiving food assistance.  Before all the economic meltdown stuff started, the (shocking, to me) statistic was that 1 in 10 Michigan residents was receiving food assistance. Now, the news from food banks is that their resources are diminishing at the same time that they're trying to keep up with a growing tidal wave of demand. 

When I started looking at how EBT works I was undone by how confusing it all seemed. And I'm  not even overwhelmed and in a crisis.  The website for the Department of Human Services really needs some usability help!   So many acronyms, forms, calculators and different names for the same thing.  For example, food stamps is now the Food Assistance Program or FAP, also called EBT or Electronic Benefits Transfer or Bridge Card.  And that's not even counting the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program or FMNP, also known as Project Fresh, which I think is part of WIC, the Women, Infant and Children program, which is also part of FAP. 

With this level of complexity and confusion, it's starting to make sense to me why it is such a big deal that our market now accepts the Bridge Card. They had to do some serious unraveling of issues to make it work.  The Bridge Card (in my understanding) is like a debit card which gets pre-loaded with the amount for the benefits received (although I'm not sure how often this happens - monthly or weekly?)  According to Kara Morris, who wrote about what she ate and how hungry she was during her participation in a Michigan Food Stamp Challenge, a single person is eligible for up to $29.35 per week.  

The DHS Food Assistance Program Overview  says "FAP benefits can be used to buy eligible food at any Food and Nutrition Service(FNS) authorized retail food store or approved meal provider. Eligible food includes:

  • Any food or food product intended for human consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and foods prepared for immediate consumption.
  • Seeds and plants to grow food for personal consumption.
  • Meals prepared by organizations approved by FNS as specified below.
  • Meals prepared and served to eligible residents by a shelter for battered women and children, certain adult foster care (AFC) homes and substance abuse treatment centers."


Check it out - seeds and plants are among the eligible expenditures. It makes sense that EBT participants can find healthy, good value food (and food plants) available at the Farmer's Market. 

The problem is, most farmers don't have credit card machines, and if they did they might not be the kind that can read the EBT cards.  So, the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market (following the example of the Ypsilanti Farmer's Market and others around the country) have set up a system of "market dollars" - one dollar tokens that can be exchanged for EBT benefits and spent with vendors at the market who accept them. 

To clear up some of my confusion, I consulted Molly Notarianni, the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market Manager about how this all works. 


Wherein The Farmer's Marketer (FM) asks the Farmers' Market Manager (Molly) some questions: 

FM: Is the EBT card something people get through the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program? Or is it another way of saying "food stamps" and "Food Assistance Program"?

Molly: "EBT" stands for Electronic Benefit Transfer, and it is similar to a credit card for Food Stamp holders to use to redeem their Food Stamp benefits.  EBT is the only format in which food stamps currently exist (the switch was made away from paper in the early 2000's), which is why it has been difficult for Farmers' Markets to accept food stamps in recent years.  Each state's EBT card has a different proprietary name, ie the Bridge Card in Michigan, the Oregon Trail Card in Oregon."

FM: Is there a "special" EBT card reader or is it just a regular credit card reader?

Molly: "You can run EBT cards on normal card readers, but sometimes there is an additional fee, and not all card readers are compatible.  Our regular card reader happens not to be the right model, and so we have a second card reader just for EBT.  This one is provided to us free of charge, by the state food stamp program."

FM: Why is the system of tokens in place? Is it because vendors don't have card readers? Or the cash delay? Or all of it?

Molly: "There are several reasons why we chose to go with the token system (which is a pretty common way for farmers' markets to deal with EBT transactions).  First of all, all of the vendors do not have card readers (and in fact not all of the stalls have electricity!), so it is a service we can provide for the market as a whole.  Next, because the food stamp benefits do not technically have a cash value, it would be illegal for us to swipe peoples' cards and then provide them with cash to spend with the vendors (plus, it would be difficult to ensure the cash would be spent on the food items).  We could have opted for another form of "scrip," like paper vouchers or paper "market money," but tokens seemed like the most durable, tangible way to go.  We are planning on introducing a $5 market token that can be bought with credit/debit cards/checks/cash later in the season, to de-stigmatize the food stamp tokens/legitimize the "wooden nickel" as a form of market currency!"

FM: So, here's my understanding of how the process works. The "market dollars" are available for people with an EBT card  -  they come in and tell you how many $$ to charge to the card and you give them the $1 tokens in return to spend with people who have the "We accept tokens here" sign.

Molly: "Yep."

FM: At the end of the day (literally), the vendors turn in the market tokens to you, and you give them cash.

Molly: "Actually, because the money is going through the city's financial system (and because reimbursing on the spot could potentially require me having a huge pile of cash in the office), the vendors will receive biweekly reimbursement checks from the city."

FM: You are (eventually) reimbursed for that cash through the EBT (or FMNP or some other?) program

Molly: "It actually functions just like a credit card, so the funds are automatically deducted from the EBT cardholder's account, and deposited into the market's account."

FM:  I think the FMNP (Farmer's Market Nutrition Program) is also called "Project Fresh" - is that right? Is that only for WIC recipients? And is it only $20 for one year?

Molly: "Yes, the FMNP is called "Project Fresh."  This is an additional benefit that WIC participants receive, and it is $20 in $2 vouchers.  This is different from food stamps in many ways, including:

*Project Fresh vouchers can only be accepted from May-October 31 (food stamps are obviously valid year-round)

*Project Fresh vouchers can only be used on fresh fruits & vegetables (food stamps can be used on any edible food that is not hot, ready-to-eat food, including seeds and starts that will be used to grow food!)

FM: I read that WIC recipients in Michigan were barred from buying organic food with their WIC benefits - do you know if this applies to Project Fresh? Does it apply to the EBT cards?

Molly: "I have heard this too, but find it confusing and I don't think it is entirely true.  I am pretty sure that it is in reference to the food that is part of the WIC supplemental food allocation, which is really focused on the specific nutritional needs of mothers and young children and includes mostly dry goods, ie "two jars of Jiff peanut butter, one container of Mott apple juice concentrate."    The Project Fresh vouchers are something different, and can be used on any produce, organic or not, as long as it is raw fruits/vegetables (of course $20 is not very much over the course of a year...but that's another story).  There are no restrictions as far spending food stamps, again as long as it is on edible, non-hot food items."

FM: Is the EBT card limited like Project Fresh? 

Molly: "EBT benefits vary from person to person depending on their circumstances.  I've heard of benefits as low as $10/month and as high as upwards of $500/month (for a family).  It is important to note that although food stamps are technically supposed to be "supplemental" food assistance,  for many it is their sole food budget."

FM:  Could you comment about how it is going so far?

Molly: "To date, we have had only one EBT transaction, but the program has been met with enormous enthusiasm from vendors, shoppers, and EBT cardholders."

FM: What do you hear from the vendors?

Molly: "Most are excited, and many have been wanting to see this happen at market for years."

FM: What percent of vendors accept the tokens? (or do you anticipate will be accepting the tokens?)

Molly: "I would guess at least 70% of vendors who sell food-stamp eligible products will accept the tokens (this is the approximate percentage that participate in Project Fresh, which is very similar in implementation at market).

FM: Can I buy tokens to donate for people who need them? What would be the best way of handling this?

Molly: "Unfortunately you can't buy the $1 tokens, because they are purely a food stamp benefit "currency."  I love the idea, though!  I had envisioned "gift certificates" as one use for the $5 market tokens; once they are created and in circulation they could be bought and donated to folks in need."

FM: Would the farmer's market, in fact, be willing to set up a way for   people to donate regularly to a particular group of people and distribute the tokens?  Or, possibly, to work with other local  organizations to do this (SAFE House, Ozone house, Delonis Center, etc.)

Molly: "I have been working with Food Gatherers to promote usage of the EBT program, but again, unfortunately only those with EBT cards can purchase the food stamp tokens.  I think the concept of donating to a market token pool is a fantastic idea!  Super great!  Perhaps this could be accomplished with the $5 normal market currency tokens in the future??


So, I think we owe a HUGE THANK YOU to Molly and everyone who helped solve this part of the puzzle of how to extend our community's ability to offer fresh, healthy food from the Farmer's Market to people who need it.  

This would also be a good time to let our City Council and local representatives know that we appreciate this effort, and  that we still need a plan for community food security and ongoing support for the good work of organizations like Project Grow - which I understand is still on the City budget chopping block. Yes, the City of Ann Arbor can somehow afford a multi-million dollar new city hall, but cannot afford the pocket change amount of $7000 for Project Grow.  

City Council needs to know we need, if anything, to expand Project Grow. Somehow they seem to be missing the point that growing food is a (the?) primary aspect of self sufficiency, both for families but also for the city as a whole.  

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The Blueprint to End Hunger in Michigan says that mostly the people who understand hunger are those who suffer from it and those who work to alleviate it. The head of the Food Bank of Michigan notes that one of the most valuable functions of Plant-A Row-Gardens is in getting people to notice that - "hey, people are growing food to provide for people who need food. Oh, there are people who need food."  And for reference, I just heard that Food Gatherers has an in-take desk for donations of fresh produce - any amount. One tomato even. 

Bread for the World says: "In essence, hunger is the most extreme form of poverty, where individuals or families cannot afford to meet their most basic need for food. Hunger manifests itself in many ways other than starvation and famine. Most poor people who battle hunger deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which result in stunted growth, weakness and heightened susceptibility to illness.

From the 2007 Blueprint to End Hunger in Michigan

• One in ten people are using emergency food programs. 

• Some children eat a free school lunch, but it is their only meal of the day. During the summer, many children have no guaranteed source for meals. 

• Some working parents skip meals in order to better feed their children. 

• Under-nourished people can be found in every city, township and county. 

• We found a 29% gap between meals provided and meals needed. 

Addressing Poverty is Key to Alleviating Hunger 

Poverty and lack of income are the primary reasons people become food insecure and experience hunger. 

Some 35 million (??!!??) Americans live below the poverty line and more than a million do in Michigan. As a basic human right, all people should be able to purchase the food they need. Moving toward a future where  everyone enjoys that right is a realistic, affordable and morally compelling goal for Michigan. 

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It's true that it's morally indefensible that there should be hungry people in this country and in this state and in this county. But I also know that I'm often at a loss to figure out what I personally can do about it beyond writing a check to Food Gatherers and urging my family to participate in Heifer International.   

While I support the work of these worthy organizations, I don't think ending hunger is really about these important, yet stopgap measures to "feed the hungry." If people are hungry, we are not in the world as it should be. "Feeding the hungry"  takes the power away from them and gives it to me (the great provider). 

I want the world as it should be. How, really, do we work to end poverty (and pay farmers a living wage) so that people have the ability and the dignity and the power to feed themselves? That is the question that engages me. 

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UM Student Kara Morris participates in and talks about the Food Stamp Challenge: One Week on $29.35. Below is a small excerpt of her experience. Please take a look at her website!  She also made a video that summarizes what she learned. Check it out.  

Day 2: "I’m beginning to realize that I need a lot of food. I exercised this morning and felt sluggish, likely because I ate less than normal yesterday. Today’s menu was nearly the same as yesterday’s, though I’m slightly more hungry.

Generally I’m a huge supporter of the 3-meal day, but a busy Monday and Tuesday have limited my access to budgeted food. This probably wouldn’t have happened if I had bought produce at the farmers market on Saturday instead of waiting until Wednesday.

My only other problem thus far has been variety. Buying in bulk is less expensive, so I make more of one meal. Unfortunately, there are only so many ways I can re-plate chili. Aside from food monotony, many scents and sites remind me of forbidden foods. This causes cravings and makes me appreciate the variety I usually get. Additionally, I’ve tried to stay true to my regular eating habits, but have had to make a few changes. Good cheese and dark chocolate are no longer on my meal plan.

Hopefully I can find some good deals at the farmers market tomorrow; my original estimate of $6 for produce still stands."


From Food Gatherers

POVERTY IN AMERICA

  • The official poverty rate in 2007 was 12.5% of the total US population, an increase from 2002.
  • 13.3 million children in the US live in poverty.
  • In 2007, 37.3 million people were living below the federal poverty threshold ($16,705 for a family of three with two children). This means there are now 2.7 million more Americans living in poverty than in 2002.
  • Hunger in the United States has increased by more than 18% since 1997.
  • On average, Food Stamp benefits for a month only last 2.5 weeks.

HIGH NEED FOR FOOD More individuals and families are in need of food assistance in recent years due to increasing costs of heating oil, gasoline, and rent. These increases cause people to cut down on their food budget in order to make ends meet. At the same time, there is a drop in available food assistance from the US Department of Agriculture commodities program and a decrease in donations from supermarkets related to their improved inventory tracking systems. In 2007, major US cities reported an increase in demand for emergency food assistance from households with children, individuals, elderly, and people who are employed.

Locally (Washtenaw County)  Food Gatherers participated in its first national hunger study 

conducted for Feeding America, the nation's food bank network. Food Gatherers staff and 

volunteers conducted 300 face-to-face interviews with clients receiving food from 84 of our

 partner non-profit agencies throughout Washtenaw County. Our agency participation rate 

was 95% (the national average was 75%).


HUNGER STUDY HIGHLIGHTS FOR WASHTENAW COUNTY:

  • 5,569 different people receive assistance from Food Gatherers' network in any given week.
  • 35% of the members of households served are children under 18 years old.
  • 7% of the members of households are elderly.
  • 41% of households include at least one employed adult.
  • 66% have incomes below the federal poverty level.
  • 77% of the agencies Food Gatherers serves reported that more people need food assistance now than in 2001.
  • As many as 50% more people sought food assistance from Food Gatherers' community partners in 2007 than in 2006.
  • 93% of the clients served were satisfied with the quality of food they received.

Food Gatherers is in the midst of conducting a Washtenaw County Food Security Study to locate areas of greatest need in order to improve service delivery. Please check back for study findings.

TOUGH CHOICES IN WASHTENAW COUNTY:

  • 33% of households served by Food Gatherers' network choose between paying for food and utilities.
  • 28% choose between food and housing.
  • 25% choose between food and medicine.
  • 27% of households reported having at least one member in poor health.




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Copyright 2011 - The Farmer's Marketer