What If All Farmers’ Markets Took Food Stamps?

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It might improve our health, but by how much remains uncertain. Either way, it’s a boon for most farmers’ markets.

By Francie Diep

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(Photo: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner/Flickr)

About half of certified farmers’ markets in Los Angeles accept Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, formerly known as food stamps. Now, activists are on their way to making that figure 100 percent, by force of law. L.A.’s city council has voted unanimously to draft regulation that would require all farmers’ markets to take EBT cards, KPCC’s Take Two reports.

Advocates have long hoped such laws would pass not only in Los Angeles, but all over America. What may happen if they do? Some emerging science supports the idea that they might improve the health of people who rely on food assistance, a stated goal of officials pushing for EBT card readers at farmers’ market stalls. “Low-income folks will often buy foods that are calorie dense. We want to try to nudge them in the direction of farmers’ markets and purchasing healthy, less-processed foods. This is part of that strategy,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the United States Department of Agriculture, told USA Today in 2013. But the science is still uncertain, so any improvement could be quite small.

Below, the top takeaways from the evidence:

EBT Cardholders Will Shop at Farmers’ Markets

In the case of farmers’ markets and food assistance, “If you build it, they will come” seems to hold true. One study, conducted in Arizona, found that installing EBT card readers improved sales at four out of five farmers’ markets, and, in 2010, researchers in San Francisco reported that a concerted effort by city officials led to steady increases in the numbers of food-assistance users who shopped at farmers’ markets.

But Does That Improve Their Health?

Whether folks buy healthier foods at farmers’ markets than they do in other types of stores, such as supermarkets, is unknown. Anecdotally, it seems farmers’ markets don’t devote the same amount of shelf space and marketing to unhealthy snacks as supermarkets have been shown to. Whether shopping at farmers’ markets instead improves people’s diets remains poorly studied, however.

Access Could Help EBT Cardholders Avoid Pesticides

There’s no law that says farmers’ market produce must be organic, but such is often the case. Thus, allowing parents who use food assistance to buy their fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets could reduce low-income American kids’ exposure to pesticides through food, the Children’s Environmental Health Network argues. Indeed, somestudies have found that, after eating exclusively organic for just a few days, poor kids have lower levels of a common group of pesticides called organophosphates in their bodies.

But Does That Improve Their Health?

It’s important to note the established science suggests those lower levels don’t make a real difference to kids’ health. It’s far more important to ensure kids eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, whether grown conventionally or organically. The Children’s Environmental Health Network and other proponents of organics for kids argue that not enough is known about pesticides’ effects on children, who may be especially vulnerable because they’re still growing.

The Bottom Line

It remains to be seen whether expanding access to farmers’ markets will make a dent in Americans’ health. Either way, accepting federal food benefits will likely stoke demand for local produce and improve sales at most farmers’ markets, making them a bigger provider of all of America’s food.

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