The Schenectady Greenmarket was in panic mode earlier this summer, as news came that its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program customers might not be able to shop there this year.
The concern wasn't sparked by a policy change, but rather a technology snag.
The Mobile Market+ app processes SNAP/EBT and credit card payments for the Greenmarket and for thousands of farmers markets across the country. But the app's owner, Novo Dia Group, announced early in the summer that it would shut down on July 31.
On July 27, Novo Dia postponed the planned shutdown until February, after reaching an agreement with New York state and the Farmers Market Federation.
“We’re not in panic mode anymore,” said Cheryl Whilby, market manager at the Schenectady Greenmarket. That's not to say nobody's worried.
“We have a very solid base of EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] customers,” said Leesa Perazzo, chairwoman of the Schenectady Greenmarket.
Anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent of the market's customers use SNAP/EBT. The Mobile Market+ app, which also processes credit card transactions, brings in at least $2,000 on a weekly basis, Whilby said.
New York state has supported the use of EBT at farmers' markets since 2002. But in the fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture canceled a contract with the Farmers Market Coalition, which provides farmers' markets the software/hardware to process SNAP payments.
On July 2, Novo Dia Group, one of the major companies selling the technology, announced it would no longer be able to operate and would shut down the Mobile Market+ app on July 31.
The USDA recently awarded a new contract -- to Financial Transaction Management (FTM) -- that supplies SNAP/EBT equipment and services for farmers' markets. However, according to a release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, that company doesn’t support mobile transactions, which farmers' markets in New York moved to in 2014.
“With no replacement technology in place, and no foresight by the federal government to anticipate this situation, both farmers and SNAP beneficiaries would have suffered,” states Cuomo's press release. More than 1,700 farmers' markets across the U.S. use Novo Dia’s technology, including many in New York, according to Cuomo.
For many Schenectady residents, getting fresh food is a struggle. The Northside, Hamilton Hill, Downtown, Bellevue and Vale neighborhoods have all been identified as food deserts by both activists and the state health commissioner.
“A lot of people do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Perazzo, who is also a City Council member.
The Schenectady Greenmarket is one way residents can access not only fresh food but locally grown food, which supports local farmers.
Supplemental nutrition assistance program customers come to the market each week, to exchange their SNAP/EBT payments for tokens, which can only be used to purchase fresh food at the market.
They’re also given FreshConnects checks that provide a $2 incentive for every $5 that SNAP customers spend at farmers' markets. According to Perazzo, because produce at a farmers' market can be marginally more expensive than produce sold at a grocery store, FreshConnects helps level the cost for SNAP customers.
Last week, the Greenmarket had more than 7,000 customers, a little fewer than 1,000 of whom were SNAP/EBT customers.
“We work very, very hard to let our EBT customers know they’re welcome,” Perazzo said.
While a long-term solution hasn’t been identified, Perazzo said the Greenmarket was appreciative that the governor recognized the weight of the situation and stepped in. Since the Greenmarket is a year-round market, this is an issue that will have an impact even in February, should Mobile Market+ shut down.
For its part, Novo Dia Group said it is working with the New York Farmers Market Federation to create a more permanent solution. For updates, visit farmersmarketcoalition.org.