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By Yen Duong
In 1941, Norman and David Simpson’s grandfather started selling produce from the family farm off the back of his truck at a nondescript Charlotte corner. By 1978, their father was there, just outside the central business district of Uptown, every Tuesday and Friday. By the time Norman and David took over the family farming business with their mother Mary, they were setting up tents and inviting other vendors three days a week.
On a Friday afternoon, dozens of Charlotteans picked up local produce, house plants and flowers, fresh seafood and meat and eggs from Simpson’s Produce, the popular bodega-sized market that continues on the site, at the very edge of the historic African-American neighborhood of Cherry, which has historically housed low-income black residents but is gentrifying due to its proximity to Uptown.
While college students rubbed elbows with grandmothers, the crowd leaned white and older. The people who were missing: enrollees in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known colloquially as food stamps). Like most of the farmers markets in Charlotte, Simpson’s doesn’t accept SNAP.
In the U.S., people who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $33,475 for a family of four, qualify for SNAP. In North Carolina, households earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level may qualify after they apply online, or at a county Department of Social Services office. Once approved, they get an electronic benefits transfer card, which looks like a credit card.
EBT cards aren’t accepted everywhere. EBT machines can cost $800 to $1,000 upfront, and that’s not counting the monthly processing fees. Merchants who already have a credit card machine must pay an extra monthly EBT fee and get approved by the federal Food and Nutrition Services program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“About 10 years ago, when we checked into it, they were saying, ‘Well, you need to sell this or you can’t sell that.’ Then we were like, we’ll just pass,” Norman Simpson recalled. “You want to be able to use it, but you want to be able to sell what you want to sell. We’re not selling, alcohol or guns or weapons or nothing like that. We’re just selling food.”
According to the USDA, 316 farmers markets across North Carolina accepted SNAP in 2017. In the state’s largest city, only two markets do so now, though several more say they’re on their way. That means one in nine Charlotte farmers markets take SNAP as of today, versus a national average of about one in three, according to a 2018 consulting report commissioned by the city of Charlotte.
Double up & expand
This year, Mecklenburg County started a program to pay for farmers market EBT machines. County employee Abigail Wyatt, who was hired in January, wants to expand SNAP to all of the markets by obtaining EBT machines, training vendors and helping the markets apply to the USDA.
When a SNAP beneficiary visits a market, they can swipe their EBT card and get a bag of tokens to redeem at market vendors, Wyatt said. At the end of the day, the farmers turn in their tokens for cash from the market, which redeems the EBT swipes with the federal program.
As an added incentive, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are looking for local companies to sponsor a “double up bucks” program, in which SNAP recipients use $10 of EBT swipes and receive $20 in tokens, with the sponsors making up the difference.
“It’s a little like a Catch 22,” said Tom Warshauer, who manages community engagement for the City of Charlotte. “They have to accept [SNAP] before you can get the double up to work. But they are reluctant to start accepting and spend all that money upfront.”
When the Davidson farmers market, which Wyatt managed for over three years, started accepting SNAP, a private fundraising event fully supported the double up bucks program. That market only needed $1,000 to double the amount of produce that SNAP beneficiaries got last year, Wyatt said.
Wyatt’s ultimate goal is to expand SNAP to all of Mecklenburg’s farmers markets, along with a double up program that works at all of them.
“I think 23 different cities have universal double up programs in the country,” said Elliott Royal, who works in community engagement for the city. “We know that it’s successful, we know that it works. Some of them have been doing it for years. … It’s about time that Charlotte is a part of the bigger picture.”
Red markers indicate markets that accept SNAP. Yellow indicate markets in the process of beginning to accept SNAP. Data from Mecklenburg County Public Health. Map credit: Yen Duong.
It’s hard to change a culture
While the county and city are working together to get farmers markets to accept SNAP, getting SNAP to those who need it is yet another hurdle.
“For SNAP at least, those barriers happen in the office,” said Carolyn Barnes, a professor who researches poverty at Duke University, at a May food policy summit sponsored by the Duke Endowment. “People have really challenging experiences with caseworkers, they have a hard time getting in contact with their caseworker and understanding what documents are needed to process their application. And they have stigmatizing interactions.”
Even as accepting SNAP, obtaining EBT machines, and starting double up bucks is a start, the farmers still need SNAP recipients to come to the markets. Last year, the farmers market in the posh Cotswold neighborhood shut down their SNAP program because no one used EBT there, Wyatt said.
This year, Wyatt sent the market a proposal which would cover the EBT machine but would still require the market to pay about $37 per month for internet and processing. According to her proposal, over 10,000 households in the Cotswold ZIP code and neighboring ZIP codes use SNAP benefits.
“[It’s] making sure that the folks that have the benefit are able to get to the farmers market and feel safe at a farmers market and feel welcomed,” said Allison Nelson, who works for Mecklenburg County Public Health, as an audience member at the summit. “The matching is a real incentive to folks that have SNAP.”
The Charlotte Regional market, like the three other state-run regional markets, does not accept SNAP. But unlike its peers in Raleigh, Asheville and Greensboro, the Charlotte market does not include wholesalers or restaurants. And the market, tucked into an undeveloped area by the airport off a highway, has no sidewalks and no public transit access. That might be why last year it had 650,000 visitors, while the other state markets had 1.4 to 3.5 million visitors, Warshauer said.
The city and county have no say on the placement of the regional market, though Warshauer, Royal and Wyatt all hope that the market can move to somewhere more accessible.
“This is part of preventive health care,” Royal said. “We have predatory dollar stores that are taking over urban areas and rural areas … and they’re taking SNAP.
“This is a great opportunity for us to increase our retail options, and to encourage our transportation system to be able to take people to the necessities that they need to encourage their life longevity, and for them to stay in the city that they’re living.”
“It’s about social capital. It’s about people coming together across difference, and people being able to participate in the economy,” added Warshauer. “It’s the poor meeting the rich, the immigrants meeting the people that have been here, it’s rubbing shoulders with people that are different.
“You don’t get that experience at Harris Teeter.”