Accepting Public Benefits

If one of the goals of your farmers’ market is to increase access to fresh and healthy food for low income customers, it will be a high priority for you to be able to accept public benefit food assistance programs in your farmers’ market.

There are three primary public benefit programs that operate within farmers’ markets:

  • The WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program
  • CalFresh
  • WIC Fruit and Vegetable Check programs

These programs have very different processes for applying to accept benefits, working with participants within the farmers’ markets, and working with farmers who accept the benefits. One common element is that they all will require that you have a Certified Farmers’ Market Certificate in hand when applying to accept benefits. If participating in any of these programs is a priority for your market it is important to apply with your county’s department of agriculture well in advance of the target opening date of your farmers’ market so you have time to complete the program applications and get a response before your opening day.

A number of farmers’ markets operate programs that encourage the utilization of these public benefits at farmers’ markets. The most prominent local program is called Market Match, though there are other versions of this program that operate in California and across the nation.

WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program

WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers (WIC FMNP) are part of a federal-state partnership that is designed to provide low income families and seniors with access to fresh fruits and vegetables by providing them with coupon vouchers that they can spend only at farmers’ markets.

In California, the WIC FMNP program for families is managed by the California Department of Public Health and the WIC FMNP program for seniors is managed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Both programs provide recipients with one $20 book of WIC FMNP vouchers per farmers’ market season. The vouchers can be spent in farmers’ markets between May 1 and November 30 and must be deposited by December 31.

Of all public benefit food assistance programs, the WIC FMNP is easiest for farmers’ markets to launch and manage. Your farmers’ market must be authorized by the California Department of Public Health before accepting WIC FMNP vouchers or allowing your farmers to accept those vouchers within your market. A single registration process authorizes your market to accept WIC FMNP for both families and seniors.

To request authorization for your farmers’ market you must complete the application form. When submitting the form you must include a current Certified Farmers’ Market Certificate so you must complete the application with your local county before beginning this process. In addition to the form, the farmers’ market manager must attend a training given by state or local WIC agency staff or participate in an online FMNP training webinar.

In addition, each farmer who sells in a farmers’ market must be individually authorized by the state to accept WIC FMNP and have a valid six-digit WIC number. If your farmers are already selling in other farmers’ markets they may already be trained and authorized and have WIC numbers. Staff at the Department of Public Health who manage the WIC FMNP program may be able to tell you if a particular farmer is already authorized through the program. If they aren’t registered, you can refer them to the signup and training resources available from the California Department of Public Health.

The WIC FMNP regulations specifically allow farmers to use the WIC FMNP vouchers they receive from customers to pay their stall fees. You must decide if you wish to accept the vouchers from farmers or require them to deposit the vouchers themselves. Accepting the vouchers from farmers can encourage small farmers who may not have bank accounts to participate in the program but it does add a potentially time-consuming activity to your list of duties as before depositing each voucher you must ensure that it has a six-digit WIC number on the front and is properly endorsed on the back.

You should also be aware that most banks consider each individual check or WIC FMNP voucher deposited to be a separate transaction. A bundle of 50 $2 WIC FMNP vouchers deposited at one time may seem to you to be a single transaction, but the bank likely considers it to be 50 separate transactions. If there are limits on the number of transactions you can have in a single month, you may find yourself facing fees for depositing the WIC FMNP vouchers. It is a good idea to check with your financial institution to learn if there are any fees or transaction limits that you should be aware of.

Some farmers’ markets make it a requirement of the farmers who sell within their farmers’ markets to be authorized and to accept WIC FMNP vouchers within their farmers’ market. If you do not have such a rule in place, it is important to work with your farmers so those who do accept the WIC FMNP vouchers have prominent signage in the market, making it easy for customers with vouchers in-hand to know where they can spend them.

If you are opening a “small certified farmers’ market” in the City of San Jose, it is a requirement that your farmers’ market be certified to accept WIC FMNP vouchers.

CalFresh-EBT

The largest public benefit program is CalFresh. This is the modern iteration of the former federal food stamp program. It is funded through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Compared to WIC FMNP, the program is more complicated to set up and manage, but unlike WIC FMNP which provides customers a single $20 disbursement per year, CalFresh provides ongoing monthly benefits, averaging around $130 per family per month, for as long as customers qualify.

CalFresh redemptions at PCFMA’s Santa Clara County farmers’ markets in 2013 totalled $39,428.

CalFresh benefits are delivered through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system to a debit card, called the Golden State Advantage Card, issued to recipients. For CalFresh customers who shop at grocery stores or other brick and mortar stores, they are able to use their EBT cards in the same way that they might use a credit or debit card. Accepting CalFresh in a farmers’ market requires the ability to process these EBT transactions.

While both farmers and farmers’ markets can be authorized to accept CalFresh benefits, it is much more common in California for farmers’ markets to be authorized to accept CalFresh benefits and provide that as a service to its farmers. To help promote CalFresh usage at farmers’ markets the state of California passed AB 537 in 2010 that requires that a certified farmers’ market either accept CalFresh benefits or facilitate the participation of an outside group that will provide CalFresh processing on behalf of the farmers’ market.

The Ecology Center, the Berkeley, California-based nonprofit, maintains a program dedicated to helping farmers’ markets successfully launch CalFresh programs, and can provide additional assistance.

The process of acquiring authorization to accept CalFresh begins with an application to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). The USDA requires a social security number for a person who is authorized to sign the application on behalf of the applicant. Before beginning the process be sure to identify who that person will be and that they are comfortable with their personal information being used in the application. You will also need to submit a copy of that person’s social security card and drivers’ license as part of the application process.

The easiest and quickest way to apply is through the USDA’s online system.

  • Apply for a USDA eAuthentication account using the valid email address at which you would like to be contacted concerning your CalFresh account.You will receive a confirmation email, usually within 30 minutes, which allows you to login to the USDA’s secure server to complete the application form.
  • Complete the form, answering all questions to the best of your ability. The Simple Guide for Market Managers, published by the Ecology Center, provides helpful hints on how to complete the FNS application.
  • Once you have completed the application online, it generates form FNS-252E as a PDF document. Save a copy of this document for your records. Print a copy for signature by the authorized representative and mail it along with copies of the social security card and drivers’ license for the authorized representative, and a copy of your farmers’ market permit or health permit to the address provided.
  • You should hear back from USDA within 30 to 45 days concerning the status of your application.

Once you have a valid FNS number, you should contact the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to request equipment that will allow you to process CalFresh transactions in a farmers’ market environment. CDSS may be able to provide your farmers’ market with a free wireless Point of Sale (POS) terminal to process CalFresh EBT transactions. If a wireless POS terminal is not available from CDSS, they will be able to provide you with manual vouchers that can be completed in the farmers’ market and verified through a cell phone call to an automated system. The manual voucher system is also an effective backup in case the wireless POS terminal is not functioning so your CalFresh customers will still have access to their benefits despite any technical challenges.

CalFresh programs at farmers’ markets are done through scrip programs in which the farmers’ market processes the customers’ CalFresh transaction and issues the customer scrip in equal value to the amount the customer charges on his/ her CalFresh EBT card. This scrip can be paper coupons, or plastic, wooden or metal tokens. Customers use this scrip to purchase CalFresh eligible products from farmers and other food vendors in the farmers’ market. The farmers’ market then reimburses its farmers and vendors for the scrip they have received.

If you are opening a “small certified farmers’ market” in the City of San Jose, it is a requirement that your farmers’ market either accepts CalFresh or allows the participation of a third-party processor who will coordinate the processing of CalFresh transactions for your customers, farmers, and vendors.

WIC Fruit and Vegetable Coupons

WIC Fruit and Vegetable Coupons (WIC FVC) are relatively new addition to the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. As the name implies, the program is designed to help women who are caring for infants or small children to purchase healthy food. In 2009, fresh fruits and vegetables were added to the list of items that WIC recipients could purchase with their benefits, in addition items such as milk, cheese, peanut butter, cereal, and baby formula that had long been part of the program.

Unlike the WIC FMNP program, the WIC FVC program distributes benefits throughout the year. In 2013, the average family’s WIC benefit in California was around $46 monthly.

To get more information about applying to be WIC FVC farmers’ market, contact the California Department of Public Health at WICFVC@cdph.ca.gov or 916-928- 8865. Even if the farmers within your farmers’ market are authorized to accept WIC FVC in other farmers’ markets in which they sell, your farmers’ market must be authorized as a WIC FVC farmers’ market before they can accept the benefit in your market.

Unlike the WIC FMNP program, farmers cannot use the WIC FVC vouchers they accept from customers to pay market stall fees. They must deposit the checks themselves. For farmers, the process of accepting and redeeming WIC FVC vouchers is more complicated than accepting WIC FMNP vouchers, involving eight steps:

  • The WIC Participant gives the farmer the items to purchase and a WIC FVC check.
  • The farmer ensures that day’s date is between the “first day to use” and “last day to use” printed on the check.
  • The farmer notes the maximum value of the check, ensures that the check is for fruits and vegetables and not a different product, and then writes in the exact purchase price up to, but not over the maximum amount of the check.
  • The farmer gives the check back to the participant to sign.
  • The farmer compares the participant’s signature on the check with the one on the front of the participant’s WIC ID Folder to ensure they are the same.
  • The farmer retains the check and gives the participant the items purchased and returns the WIC ID Folder.
  • After the market, the farmer pre-clears the WIC FVC check through an online or automated telephone system.
  • The farmer waits 24 hours before depositing the check and ensures that s/he is depositing the check within 45 days of the “first day to use” written on the check.

The complexity of this process, which has led to some errors and acceptance of checks by farmers whose banks later refused to honor them, has led some farmers to decide that they are not willing to participate in the WIC FVC program. If you wish for your farmers’ market to have a successful WIC FVC program, be sure to budget time and resources to train your farmers on the best way to handle the WIC FVC checks so they see the program as a benefit to their farm business.

The Department of Public Health is engaged in a pilot program with the Ecology Center to identify ways in which the WIC FVC program can be made more efficient, in hopes of allowing it to be expanded to more farmers and more farmers’ markets. This pilot process is new so there is no timeline yet for when changes to the WIC FVC system might be expected.

Market Match and Other Innovative Food Access Programs

Over the past several years, a number of innovative programs have developed throughout the nation to help support public benefit programs at farmers’ markets. One of the most popular programs provides incentives to customers who use their public benefits in farmers’ markets. It is known by different names in different parts of the country: Connecticut-based Wholesome Wave Foundation calls it the Double Value Coupon Program, Fair Food Network calls it Double-up Bucks and in California, it is known as Market Match.

The California Market Match Consortium, which is coordinated by the Berkeley, California-based Ecology Center, has over a dozen organizational partners who collectively offer the Market Match program at over 100 farmers’ markets statewide.

The concept is that private fund raising supports financial incentives for customers so they are able to purchase more food — and because it is a farmers’ market, fresher and healthier food — by using benefits in their local farmers’ market instead of with a different retailer. A CalFresh customer, for example, when purchasing scrip at a farmers’ market will receive more scrip than the value of their transaction — some farmers’ markets may double the amount of their transaction up to a certain level while others may provide a set amount as a bonus.

The scrip for these bonus dollars is often different for easy tracking and sometimes to limit consumers’ purchases. For example, one of the primary sources of funding for the Market Match program has been the Specialty Crop Block Grant program managed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture so the incentive scrip can only be used to purchase specialty crops: “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture)” per the USDA definition. Of this list, only fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and dried fruits can be purchased with CalFresh benefits. The restriction to specialty crops also means that other common farmers’ market products that can be purchased with CalFresh benefits — such as bread, cheese and meat — cannot be purchased with the Market Match scrip.

To learn more about the Market Match program in California, visit www. MarketMatch.org.

A Guide to Opening Small Farmers' Markets in San Jose, California