Operators Of Oahu Farmers Markets Should Accept SNAP Payments - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Larry Geller

Larry Geller is project director for GreenWheel Food Hub, a past president and board member or Kokua Council and secretary/treasurer for the Hawaii Coalition for Health.

On one very rainy Wednesday at the Honolulu Farmers Market at Blaisdell Concert Hall, the first customer at my SNAP table, as usual, was a regular who makes the trip by bus from Pearl City.

Why would someone make such a long trek each week to shop for veggies? Because currently the Blaisdell is the only market on Oahu accepting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program formerly known as “food stamps”).

The SNAP booth at Blaisdell has been operated by GreenWheel Food Hub, a project of Feed the Hunger Fund, since 2013. Although SNAP beneficiaries have increased 23% during the pandemic, market operators on this island have declined to offer the benefit. The Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center was the only exception, pre-pandemic.

Nanette Geller at the GreenWheel Food Hub SNAP and informal information booth at the Honolulu Farmers Market at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Larry Geller

Although it is one of the missions of GreenWheel Food Hub, of which I am currently the project director, to promote and encourage SNAP acceptance at Oahu markets, we have not yet been successful. Under a USDA grant long since expired, GreenWheel directly assisted as many as three markets or food stands at a time by providing services and POS (point of sale) machines to handle customer SNAP purchases. When the funds ran out, SNAP acceptance at those locations ceased.

Why, in contrast, on the Big Island, is SNAP acceptance at the many farmers markets the rule, not the exception? I asked Kristin Frost Albrecht, Executive Director of The Food Basket, Hawaii island’s food bank, why that is. She replied:

“I believe it has a lot to do with a historical SNAP precedent — the Hilo Farmers Market was the first open market in the nation to be federally approved to accept food stamps (SNAP/EBT) in 1998. This set the tone for other markets to do the same, especially considering the success of the Hilo Farmers Market and our island’s high percentage of residents who are also SNAP beneficiaries.”

Oahu also has a substantial number of SNAP beneficiaries. Anyone on Medicaid would qualify, for example. SNAP has been one important countermeasure to poverty and food insecurity.

Hawaii’s Food Insecurity

Some 192,000 people in the islands are living in poverty, according to the 2019 Census, a higher proportion than the national average. In some Honolulu neighborhoods the rate was already more than 40% living below the poverty line, pre-pandemic.

The national Feeding America organization estimated that Hawaii’s food insecurity rate was likely to have increased to about 233,000 people in 2020 due to the pandemic, an increase of 54% over the 2018 rate.

With the arrival of COVID-19 an emergency SNAP supplement has been available in addition to a separate benefit called P-EBT. One aspect of this assistance is to provide food aid to children who received free or reduced-price meals in schools.

Yes, supermarkets accept SNAP, but likely shoppers will use benefits at stores mostly for processed convenience food and sugary drinks rather than on healthy produce. At a farmers market SNAP users have access to healthy produce picked often the same day it is sold.

Supermarket produce may spend many days in transport to Hawaii before it is offered for sale. The freshness and health value of fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets can’t be beat.

Also, supermarket profits that go to a mainland owner don’t fully contribute to the Hawaii economy. In contrast, all SNAP sales at a farmers market go directly to the farmers — it’s federal money injected into the Hawaii economy.

Some 192,000 people in the islands are living in poverty.

Tourism has been devastated during the pandemic, and as a consequence restaurants and many stores have closed or are operating at greatly reduced capacity. This has impacted farmers and producers who depend on supplying those retail venues.

Logic would indicate that now is the best time for farmers market operators to begin accepting SNAP — it’s money that farmers would not otherwise receive. The extra income can help pay employees, buy seeds and fertilizer and pay for other expenses that enrich the struggling Hawaii economy. Plus, farmers receive more for their produce sold at the outdoor markets than they get from supermarkets.

Changing to a diet richer in healthy veggies is an intervention that is known to work to combat obesity, pre-diabetes or diabetes. Before the pandemic, when conversation was allowed at the market, we heard from and encouraged several customers who were shopping there and working to improve their health.

Many customers ask for advice about how to use the produce. This is an incidental function which many SNAP tables provide in the form of handouts or informal recommendations at the point of sale. It’s not nutritional advice — that would be improper. Instead, for example, my wife was able to answer questions from the very simplest (“how to cook this huge beet!”) to the more complex — how to use rhubarb or how to make vichyssoise. She often pointed customers to a farmer who could answer questions, for example, on how to use a particular Filipino vegetable like moringa.

The City and County of Honolulu provided us with a supply of booklets to distribute on reducing food waste. Although not part of the Senior Voucher program, we answered questions and maintained a supply of applications for seniors to mail in. We cooperated in supporting tours of the market.

So to get back to the question: the need is there, the customers are there, the social benefit of supporting SNAP acceptance is clear — so why are Oahu operators unwilling to provide the service at their markets?

The answer is very simple: because they would have to pay for the administration of it.

The USDA provides the benefit, all of which must go to the beneficiaries. They do not cover costs necessary to provide that benefit.

The biggest cost is personnel time: Aside from the five hours each week I spend at the SNAP table itself, there are another two hours or more of accounting/check writing/report writing to be completed after each market.

My accounts are subject to audit. Tokens need to be purchased or printed. There’s insurance, P.O. box costs, postage, printing and other expenses. It’s easy for market operators to just say no. And that’s what they have done on Oahu, without exception.

It would take a movement, or creative legislation, before SNAP benefits will be available to farmers market shoppers on Oahu. How to begin?

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About the Author

Larry Geller

Larry Geller is project director for GreenWheel Food Hub, a past president and board member or Kokua Council and secretary/treasurer for the Hawaii Coalition for Health.

Latest Comments (0)

I recall reading about a butcher on the west side that had implemented something similar, and had assumed it was for the entire market. Makes me curious how they've justified/absorbed the costs...

JustWill · 2 weeks ago

Thank you Larry Gellar, for bringing attention to this issue. I am proud to have been part of the initial team working to bring SNAP to OahuÊ»s farmersÊ» markets back in 2013 through GreenWheel Food Hub. I sat with Nanette at the GWFH table assisting SNAP beneficiaries for many weeks. It might surprise people how many folks utilize these benefits, and furthermore how many of them are young students, families, and military personnel. I am sure those numbers are much higher now. Our team had many, many conversations with various farmersÊ» market managers across OÊ»ahu trying to convince them of the need for this service at their markets and that the associated work to keep it going was not overwhelming. We got flat out "not interested" responses from almost all. I donÊ»t know if requiring SNAP at all markets is the solution, but certainly letting consumers and market go-ers know which market(s) make a choice to be inclusive to different members of our community and support local producers as much as possible is a start. And finding community volunteers to assist with this effort is a great idea. Certainly enough programs out there to apply to for support. Thanks and hi to Nanette!

LisaZ · 2 weeks ago

As the pandemic spread, we showed our aloha for one another through grassroot drives and distributions.  Perhaps these organizers could continue their mission through this more established method? For SNAP benefits to be available to qualified shoppers at farmers’ markets, it sounds like only one table or booth needs to be set up per farmers’ market. If so, each surrounding community or neighborhood should set up a booth and arrange for trained volunteers to do what Green Wheel Food Hub has been doing at NBC. The costs of bureaucratic red tape, if not covered by the government (C&C?), can be covered by grants. These can be arranged by the organizers of each farmers’ market, by each community’s neighborhood board, or by volunteers already skilled in applying for and obtaining grants. Not to be trite but where there is a will, there is a way.

Auntie · 2 weeks ago

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