As part of the agency's efforts to expand access to farmers markets, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service last week introduced the MarketLink website, a resource that provides farmers with a new process for becoming an authorized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance vendor.
The online portal offers farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers options for obtaining equipment needed to accept SNAP benefits. Up to $4 million in grants for equipment will be available through Sept. 30, 2014, for those who qualify, the USDA said.
MarketLink includes information about wireless EBT equipment providers, wireless plans, USDA-approved payment processors and their rates and terms, along with relevant links to become an authorized SNAP retailer and to determine eligibility for free EBT equipment.
USDA hopes the offering will enhance the participation of farmers and farmers markets in SNAP and provide farmers with access to an expanded customer base.
"Before MarketLink, each new SNAP vendor had to search out an equipment provider, select a wireless plan, identify a USDA-approved payment processor and understand the various rates and terms of the processor on their own; all of which was a time consuming and sometimes frustrating process," FNS Administrator Audrey Rowe noted in a USDA blog. "Now MarketLink is a one-stop-shop through which farmers and markets can access all this information simply and easily."
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, farmers markets have gone from about 5,000 in number in 2008 to over 8,000 as of August 2013. Of the over 8,000 farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, over 4,000 farmers markets and direct marketing farmers are authorized to accept SNAP nationwide.
Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2013, SNAP redemption rates at farmers markets have nearly doubled, increasing from $11.7 million in 2011 to $20.4 million in 2013. Since 2004, when SNAP benefits shifted a paperless, debit-card style benefit, the value of SNAP redemptions at farmers markets increased by 400%.
"MarketLink will help ensure that (Americans in need) have access to even more fresh fruits and vegetables by upgrading the infrastructure at America’s farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits," Rowe added.