Some Wisconsin farmers markets could lose the ability to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by the end of the month.
Software company Novo Dia Group recently announced it was discontinuing its Mobile Market+ app by July 31. Many United States farmers markets use the program to process SNAP benefits by swiping an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card with a device on an iPhone or iPad.
Most markets are able to purchase the service through a program paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A two- to three-year contract for processing services costs between $2,500 and $3,500, said Ben Feldman from the Farmers Market Coalition. The coalition administered the USDA program from 2015 until the end of last year. Feldman said without it, most markets couldn't afford the equipment or software.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Novo Dia’s president said small profits and changes made by the USDA’s new contractor for the farmers market program, Financial Transaction Management, meant the software wasn’t sustainable.
The company's quick deadline has left many markets across the U.S., including in Wisconsin, scrambling to find another option.
Kristin Krokowski, director of the Wisconsin Farmers Market Association, said 18 markets in Wisconsin currently use the Mobile Market+ app, about 38 percent of the markets that accept EBT payments in the state.
"It only works on iOS devices, Apple devices. Their setup is very specific so they can't transfer what they already have to use a different system," Krokowski said. "They’re actually going to have to either figure out how to buy a handheld device that takes the EBT cards or they’re going to have to rent one of those."
Krokowski said the devices cost between $600 and $900, require a service contract and often have a per-swipe fee.
"Farmers markets are small and scrappy or tend to be and often don't have extra money in the budget for this type of purchase," said Erica Anderson, a food security specialist with the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin.
She works with 10 markets in Dane County that accept SNAP benefits and runs a program called Double Dollars that matches benefits spent at the markets.
Anderson said the transition is coming at peak season for farmers markets.
"Once a lot of the summer produce is available — tomatoes, peppers, broccoli — all of those wonderful things, a lot more people start shopping at the farmers market. And so this hits Wisconsin at a really inopportune time," Anderson said.
Krokowski said many farmers markets have invested in marketing and a social media campaign this year to encourage more SNAP recipients to shop at their markets.
"The communication (from Novo Dia) on this hasn't been very good and there are markets that still don't know that their service is ending," Krokowski said.
Feldman said he believes the transition between his organization and Financial Transaction Management could have gone more smoothly in order to prevent a gap in services.
"The fact that Novo Dia was going out of business, that blow would be lessened by the ability of markets to receive equipment through the federal program. Unfortunately, that program is not up and running yet and that obviously is a problem for our industry," Feldman said.
Anderson said she’s hoping the USDA may be able to approve an alternative for markets that are affected.
"There are ways to process paper vouchers offline, I’m wondering if that could be a solution. I’m wondering if farmers markets could support each other with existing equipment," Anderson said.
But she said that depends on how flexible the agency can be in authorizing EBT payments.
Financial Transaction Management did not return a request for comment by deadline.