If approved by the Legislature and funded, a program sponsored by the V.I. Human Services and Agriculture Departments would allow low-income residents to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to purchase from local farmers markets.
Bill 30-0295 would place a provision in the Farmers Market Technology Improvement Program so farmers could accept electronic benefits transfer cards from SNAP recipients to pay for vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and dairy products.
According to the legislation, the purpose of the SNAP Fresh Food Access and Farmers Market Technology Improvement Program is to increase access for low-income residents to buy fresh food and value-added products using transfer benefits cards.
Although senators agreed a funding source should be found for the program, none was identified during Tuesday’s session. The bill states the Department of Agriculture and the Human Services Department will solicit federal and local funding for the program and that income could be appropriated from the Legislature, grants and donations.
The bill also states that Human Services, with input from Agriculture and the Public Finance Authority, will develop rules and regulations for the program. The finance commissioner would also maintain a separate and designated SNAP Fresh Food Access and Farmers Market Technology Improvement Fund.
According to Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch, SNAP benefits paid by the federal government in 2013 were $57 million for 32,000 recipients. SNAP eligibility is determined by the federal government, which also approves farm vendors.
Sen. Clarence Payne, the bill’s sponsor, said that 45 states and territories now include farmers markets to provide food for low-income residents.
V.I. Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen said farmers must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use electronic benefits transfer payment and have the equipment and technology to process the cards. Federal grants are available, he added.
“The Farmers Market Technology Improvement Program represents a positive movement that will benefit us all,” Petersen said.
The program will compliment an existing farmers market coupon program within the Agriculture and Health Departments, he added.
Funding will be needed by farmers to purchase or rent point of sale or other terminals to process SNAP payments. There also will be transaction fees.
Payne said some farm stands would use Wi-Fi and point of sale payment processing, but that other technology will be available soon to accept payments and print receipts without Wi-Fi.
Larry Kupfer of the V.I Next Generation Network said he supports the legislation. He said, “viNGN is prepared to work with any and all ISPs (internet service providers) to service local farmers markets and current and prospective customers.”
Without a funding source, Petersen agreed with Sen. Myron Jackson that farmers could pay a “small fee” to cover a phone line or cell phone.
Finch added there is free equipment from the USDA that processes SNAP payments and the farmer only pays for electricity.
Just before the vote to forward the bill to the Rules Committee, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said he had found a possible funding source that would be identified when the Rules Committee discusses the legislation.
The bill passed unanimously with votes from Sanes, Jackson and Sens. Janette Millin Young and Clifford Graham.