A week ago the Washington Post reported that SNAP recipients across the country could lose their ability to buy food at farmers markets, because of the USDA's change in vendors for mobile payments. The Novo Dia Group's app, Mobile Market Plus, processes SNAP transactions at 40 percent of farmers markets across the country, including the Greenmarket, Youthmarket, and Fresh Food Box. These make up 80 individual locations, $1.1 million in SNAP sales and $400,000 in Health Bucks sales for nearly 300 farmers in 2017. On July 31st, Novo Dia will shut down.
For years, the nonprofit Farmers Market Coalition was the company that ran these point of sale transactions, and they hired Novo Dia to provide the app to process these transactions. In November of 2017, the Farmers Market Coalition's contract came up for renewal, and the USDA awarded the $1.3 million contract to a new company, Financial Transaction Management of Reston, Virginia. The company, which has one employee, was formed just before the contract became available. Their address, 1900 Campus Commons Dr., is a virtual office. The company does not have technology up and running to process SNAP benefits at Farmer's Markets. It planned to start taking applications for replacement equipment on July 14, but there has been no news since then.
The founder and president of Novo, Josh Wiles, told the Post the company is shutting down because of the extra security measures needed for these transactions, and the small profits in these micro payments. But Wiles told Modern Farmer they were shut out of the bidding process to work with Financial Transaction Management. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Services division did not return a request for comment.
Barbara Turk, New York City's Director of Food Policy, confirmed that without this app, there is no way to process SNAP benefits at farmers markets. "We don't have direct leverage in the situation. We don’t hold the contracts. It's about technology, not a policy change on the part of the government, which didn't allow enough transition to a new vendor. It's a very mundane mistake," Turk told Gothamist.
"It would be absolutely devastating to cut off the service," Cheryl Huber, Greenmarket Assistant Director at GrowNYC told Gothamist. She said the Farmers Market Federation of New York, which represents farmers markets throughout the state, is working with the state to find a stopgap measure. The plan would be for the state to purchase a wi-fi scanner for EBT cards, in order for farmers markets to process SNAP purchases.
"It's a shame, because across the country, USDA and farmers markets have invested in iPads. Without the app, we would have to go back 10 years" in technology, since the scanners rely on wi-fi and not cellular data, said Huber. These scanners would not be able to collect data on transactions, as the iPad app does. Also, the scanners cost more than an iPad. Huber does not believe there will be any gap in service, but no deal has been reached with the state.
New York State has been processing EBT payments at farmer's markets since 2002. The ability of New Yorkers to pay with EBT at the farmers market was a "game changer," said Turk, because it gave low income people more access and options for fresh produce, and it helped the growth of farmers markets in new locations, like in the Bronx.
When a series of studies from NYU School of Medicine and NYC Health Department revealed that obesity is on the rise in New York, Jennifer Clapp, an official from the Health Department, said one way the city is fighting obesity is by expanding Health Bucks, a program that gives a $2 coupon for every $5 SNAP recipients spend at farmers markets. While the Health Bucks program is not in any danger of going away, it would be impossible to continue providing Health Bucks if farmers markets could not process SNAP payments.
This past Thursday, the Governor issued a letter to the USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Thousands of hard-working New Yorkers who depend on SNAP benefits to provide healthy, fresh meals to their families and New York State farmers and small business owners will be impacted by this inaction. USDA's failure to cultivate and approve mobile applications allow access to farmers' markets for SNAP recipients is incredibly reckless, and demonstrates the Trump administration's lack of regard for those who will be left behind as your agency attempts to provide new Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) equipment with a new operator.
On Monday, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps issued a statement saying, "Since being notified of the provider’s decision to discontinue service, USDA has been exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption. Our number one goal is to mitigate the impact on our program participants as well as farmers and producers." The statement also notes that by law, states must provide no-cost options for accepting SNAP.
GrowNYC has put up a statement on their website, but Huber said that the organization does not plan to put any signs up at the individual farmers markets. "We really do not want to discourage people from coming to the market," she said.