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Nonprofit keeps food-stamp recipients from losing farmers market benefits — at least for now

A Raleigh, N.C., farmers market in 2012. (Allen Breed/AP)

The news last week that an Austin electronic-payments company would shut down had national implications: Thousands of farmers markets across the country would soon lose their ability to process cashless transactions for low-income shoppers who use federal food-assistance benefits.

A week later, there’s at least a temporary solution. The National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs is providing funding to the Novo Dia Group to keep it afloat for 30 additional days while nonprofits, state agencies, markets and farmers scramble to put together a permanent solution. The infusion of cash will keep the program operating at about 1,700 markets that offer SNAP through the end of August.

Some food stamp recipients may soon lose access to farmers market benefits

“Everyone wants to solve this problem,” said association executive director Phil Blalock. “We understand the machines of government are a little slow, and we can operate a little faster. This is about buying time to get a longer-term solution.”

The association, which represents 45,000 farmers and 8,000 markets across the country, has been a key player in promoting the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at farmers markets. The nonprofit was the first organization awarded a contract to oversee an Agriculture Department contract to develop mobile services for farmers markets in 2013, and Novo Dia was one of its early partners. The association estimates that the potential shutdown of the service could translate to millions of dollars in lost sales at farmers markets.

Market directors and advocates praised the move, which will prevent a disruption in service and buy time to figure out what might happen next. Amy Crone, executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association, for example, estimates that the extension of service will prevent losses in excess of $330,000 to its network of markets and farmers.

The move will also help a range of incentive programs that have emerged over the past decade to continue improving low-income shoppers’ access to healthful food. Nonprofit groups, such as Wholesome Wave, Fair Food Network and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive, a $100 million USDA program, match or supplement SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

Over the next month, Blalock said, stakeholders will continue to discuss ways to keep Novo Dia’s app up and running. That might be through an influx of philanthropic cash, establishing a public-private partnership, or, perhaps even persuading the government to permanently fund the program. The Farmers Market Coalition, another nonprofit, has also set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to fund Novo Dia’s service.

“We want to keep it alive,” Blalock said. “Everything is on the table.”

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