The Food Stamp Plan began in 1939 to help economically-stranded families through the Depression. This was a two birds, one (tomato?)-type solution: provide the jobless with funds for food, and bolster sales for struggling farmers. In 1974, the program was expanded to low-income households in all states.
Historically, Food Stamps—the paper version—were accepted at farmers’ markets. The Food Stamp program introduced Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) in 1996 as a way to replace paper food stamps with an ATM-style swipe card. While this transition to a paperless system was more efficient and less stigmatizing of users, it also had the unintended consequence of disadvantaging Wisconsin farmers, who, lacking EBT technology, could no longer accept Food Stamp recipients as customers, and the recipients themselves, who were now more limited in where they were able to redeem their benefits.
In 2003, through collaboration of numerous organizations and state agencies, Fondy Market in Milwaukee piloted the wireless transactions to allow for EBT use at markets and address some of the barriers to access by low-income households. This expanded to a Madison area market in 2005. In 2008, the name for the federal Food Stamp Program changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to emphasize new USDA goals centered on healthy eating. With the EBT Point of Sale (POS) system, farmers markets have the potential to increase access for participants in FoodShare, Wisconsin’s SNAP program, to fresh, healthful, local food, while directly supporting local small, family farmers.
As of 2015, eight Madison-area farmers’ markets now accept EBT benefits. Let’s keep up the good work of expanding access to fresh, local products and building business for small farmers and food producers.