On Saturday mornings between May and October, a crowd converges on downtown Lafayette to visit the Lafayette Farmer's Market.
Though it doesn’t take them yet, it’s one of 75 markets in Indiana officially authorized to accept benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“We’re hopeful for June,” says Emily Colombo, the office manager and farmers’ market liaison for Greater Lafayette Commerce. “As soon as we can. No date in place yet.”
Colombo’s farmers’ market responsibilities were started in 2017— a year after the market had been authorized to accept SNAP.
“We were approved, but we didn't have everything else in place, and the pieces just didn't fall for us to be able to start the program,” Colombo says.
Taking SNAP requires a machine to run the debit cards beneficiaries use, a machine GLC has had since last summer. It also takes tokens to give to users – which GLC has. So why has the process taken more than two years?
“Time, for one. I'm only one person, me, myself,” Colombo says. “We didn't have a market master last year, so it was tough just to be able to physically have the time to do all of it. We don't have a lot of volunteers with the Lafayette market, so it's just me trying to put the pieces together.”
“The process was extremely simple,” says Adrienne Akers, the market master for the Kokomo Farmer’s Market, one of several people interviewed for this story who say the implementation process took their market nowhere near two years. “I got online, there was a form to fill out, I filled out the form, submitted it.”
And in that time, Tippecanoe County social service agencies who work with low-income, food insecure populations using SNAP have been asking for action. Last April, a survey asked clients at several agencies to gauge their interest in using their SNAP benefits at the farmers’ market. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said they would attend the market more often if SNAP was accepted.
“Are low-income people receiving fresh fruits and vegetables part of your mission?” says Pauline Shen, who founded Veggie Drop, which picks up leftover produce at farmers’ markets and distributes it to food pantries. She also works in community outreach for the Tippecanoe County Health Department. “Yes or no. Not ‘maybe’, or we'd like it to be, or anything else.”
Shen says she has advocated to get SNAP up and running at the Lafayette Farmers’ Market since 2015—but her efforts to bring SNAP to the market have largely been frustrating.
“It’s okay! Just let us do it,” Shen says. “Or let us help you. But don't keep slamming down the phone and refusing to meet with us, refusing to answer e-mails, and being rude and unprofessional.”
Many markets forge partnerships with social service agencies and invested community members in order to disseminate information directly to their client base, which can be one of the most vital ways to advertise the program and ensure its success. But several agencies in the Lafayette area confirmed this week that they had received no recent updates from GLC about the start of the program this summer or requests for volunteer help.
“I've only ever been honest and forthright and that we're working through the process, and as soon as I have more to give you, we will gladly sit down and talk about it and work through it,” Colombo says. “Until we have it in place, I don't have specifics.”
Living with food insecurity
Farmer’s markets are lauded for their fresh produce. A tomato grown and picked close to home is significantly more nutrient-rich than its grocery store counterpart, and that extra boost plays a central part in social service agencies' eagerness for their clients to buy their fruits and vegetables from local vendors.
“But what we have is food insecurity,” says Katy Bunder, the executive director of Food Finders food bank. “We have people eating junk food without nutritional value because they can't afford the better things.”
Bunder says living on a small income is isolating, and those who struggle with food insecurity also need to feel included in the larger community.
“But the first step is making them feel that somebody gives a damn,” Bunder says.
Bunder says consuming the healthy foods available at a farmer’s market can enhance both physical and mental health in the larger population—and ultimately, that helps everyone.
“That's where, if they could go to the farmer's market, and see how delicious a tomato tastes when it's just been picked, it would do us all a world of good, not just the client,” Bunder says.
Vendors at a market must still choose, individually, whether they’ll accept SNAP. As Gary Cox of Trinity Acres Farm sets out his lettuce, asparagus and eggs, he says he has mixed feelings.
“I think it's great that we're able to provide that for those people,” Cox says. “But I also believe it's better to teach a person to fish than give them fish.”
Farmer’s market vendors who offer fresh produce, meat, baked goods and dairy products may accept SNAP. Those who offer non-food items or food for on-site consumption may not. GLC’s Emily Colombo says only about a third of the 39 vendors at the Lafayette market each Saturday even qualify.