FINI Funding for Maine Farmers’ Markets: FAQ

As has been widely reported, the USDA recently approved a major grant proposal to support  SNAP/EBT programs at more than 30 Maine farmers’ markets! (The 3 year program, announced last week, will also involve some farm stands and CSA programs.) We are very excited to see this level of Federal funding directed towards Maine farmers’ markets.

The  program is a USDA initiative designed to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables by low-income residents, and was introduced as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. The bulk of the funding is intended to support incentive programs designed to make it more affordable and desirable for low-income shoppers to buy fresh produce. We’ll be sharing more details as they become available, but here are the are the answers to some Frequently Asked Questions to help get the ball rolling:

Q: How much money is coming to Maine?

A: Wholesome Wave was awarded a total of $3.7M (over the next 3 years) for all its FINI projects nationwide. Of that grand total, more than $150,000 per year in incentive funding will be coming to Maine’s farmers’ markets for the next 3 years.

Q: Who are Wholesome Wave and MLFAN?

A: Wholesome Wave is a national nonprofit that has worked in Maine since 2010, building a network of farmers markets and other partners dedicated to ensuring access to affordable fruits and vegetables for people with limited incomes. In addition to improving the health of program participants by combating diet-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, these initiatives open new business opportunities for farmer vendors at the markets, providing much-needed revenue.

The Maine Local Food Access Network (MLFAN) is a group of Maine nonprofits (including MFFM) who work together to improve local food access across the state by supporting farmers markets, food hubs, farm stands, CSA, and other outlets. MLFAN did much of the work for the FINI proposal. Members include Access Health, Healthy Acadia. Food AND Medicine, Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, and St. Mary’s Nutrition Center.

Q: What is the FINI funding for?

A: The goal of the funding is to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables by low-income shoppers. The majority of the funds will go towards SNAP incentive programs (such as the “Double Value Coupons” or “Bonus Bucks” many markets are already using). There will be a limited amount of funding available to help support other EBT-related needs (such as equipment and promotion), but the bulk of the funding is intended directly for incentives. The majority of participants in Maine are farmers’ markets, but there are also some farm stands and CSA programs included.

Q: What is a SNAP “incentive program,” and why should the market have one?

A: Incentive programs offer discounts or bonuses to low-income shoppers, enabling them to purchase more local food, and keeping their food dollars in the local community. The appeal of incentives may also help to overcome the relative inconvenience of farmers’ market shopping (versus one-stop. 24/7 shopping available from the big box stores).

Sometimes incentives are offered as direct discounts. For example, a shopper might purchase $40 of produce, but their card is swiped for just $20. The farmer is still paid full price, thanks to the incentive funds. Sometimes incentives are offered as “bonus bucks” to be used on future market visits. For example, a shopper purchases $40 worth of food, and their EBT card is swiped for $40. They are then given $20 of bonus bucks to use on a future visit. FINI funds may only be used for fruits and vegetables.

Q: Which farmers’ markets will be eligible for this funding?

A: The Maine Local Food Access Network applied on behalf of those markets that had established EBT programs in 2014. There may be enough flexibility to direct some funds to additional markets, particularly in Years 2 & 3, but markets just starting their EBT programs this year should not expect funding in 2015. (It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.)

Q: How will the money be allocated?

A: In the summer and fall of 2014, the MFLAN team interviewed market managers and others from all the Maine EBT markets. Based on those conversations and the data the markets provided, we created budgets for Year 1, Y2, and Y3 of the program. Our numbers will have been tweaked by Wholesome Wave and the USDA, but they form the basic framework of the Maine funding.

It’s also important to keep in mind that this program required a one-for-one match, meaning that if we asked for $5,000 for a market, we (the market, MFLAN, and Wholesome Wave) had to come up with $5000 (cash or in-kind) to invest in the same project. (If you wish we had asked for more for your market… we wish we could have!)

Q: If our market was included in the proposal, are we required to accept the funding?

A: No. We will be circling back to all the markets included in the proposal to inform them of the funding available and the requirements of the funding. The markets will then have the opportunity to confirm their participation.

Q: If our market has an existing incentive program, will we have to change it to take advantage of this grant?

A: Possibly. FINI funds can only be used to incentivize the purchase of fruits and veggies. If your market has been incentivizing all SNAP-eligible foods, you will need to devise a way to track the produce incentives separately. (For example, if you use a scrip system, you might have two columns after each farm listing, one column for produce, one column for other SNAP-eligible foods.) We do not yet know if there will be any other restrictions on the use of the FINI funds. This is not a cookie-cutter program, though; what matters is what works for your market.

Q: Does this program affect what foods SNAP shoppers can purchase?

A: It does not. They can still purchase the same foods as before. However, the FINI-funded incentivescan only be used for produce. Example: A customer purchases $30 of milk, eggs, and meat with their EBT card at a market that offers a “double value” incentive. That customer then walks away with $15 in “Bonus Bucks” that they can use to purchase fruits and vegetables at the market. (Find a list of SNAP-eligible foods here.) 

Q: Why is the money only for fruits and vegetables?

A: Research has shown that Americans eat far too few fruits and vegetables. The USDA designed this program specifically to encourage low-income Americans to increase their consumption of produce, and improve health/lower health care costs in the process. We want our low-income neighbors to be able to purchase all sorts of locally-grown foods easily, and this program is an important part of that picture. Since shoppers will have “bonus bucks” to use on produce, this will enable them to use their SNAP benefits directly for non-veggie purchases.

Q: Since this is a Federal grant, does that mean there will be a lot of reporting involved?

A: Markets that take advantage of this funding will definitely have to keep careful track of how they spend it, and be sure to spend it according to the grant guidelines. Most likely it will involve tracking the funds in a shared spreadsheet, or perhaps entering the data monthly on the Wholesome Wave website. We just don’t know the details yet. However, we will be working hard to keep the reporting element as simple as possible for the markets. Markets that have had an existing incentive program in place will likely see very little change in what information they need to track. We’ll be providing plenty of support around tracking and reporting FINI funds. 

Q: Our market was included in the proposal. Who will our contact person be going forward?

A: The MFLAN team broke down the list of Maine EBT markets loosely according to which markets team members were geographically close to, or with whom they had some connection. Additionally, we have other local partners who will be helping many of the markets as the program rolls out this summer. For now, please be patient as we all wait for details! Your MFLAN partner will be in touch as soon as we have more information to share.

Q: When will we learn the details of how this grant will impact our market?

A: Unfortunately, we don’t know. First Wholesome Wave must sort out all the details on their end (and remember, Maine is just a portion of their massive, national proposal). Then they will convey more information to Maine Farmland Trust, and Mike Gold will share that with the MFLAN partners. We understand that time is of the essence, since the summer markets will be starting very soon. We have heard that incentive programs can start as earlier as June 15th, but no sooner. As soon as we know more details, we will pass that along to the markets.

Q: It is great to have so much Federal funding directed to Maine. How did that happen?

A: The grant is the result of the work of the Maine Local Food Access Network (MFLAN). Last summer, an MFLAN committee gathered information from all the Maine farmers’ markets with existing EBT programs in 2014. (Erin Sweeney of Food AND Medicine, Sheri Blumenthal of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, Mike Gold of Maine Farmland Trust, and Leigh Hallett of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets made up the SNAP planning team.) In September, when the USDA released the details of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, MFLAN was poised for the intense work of crafting a statewide proposal (submitted through Wholesome Wave, a national foundation devoted to food advocacy).

Q: Is this the same grant we’ve been hearing about from MFFM since last summer?

A: Yes! As a Federal program, the FINI funding application process was complex. Since MLFAN is a still an evolving network, the group decided to apply for FINI funding through Wholesome Wave, a national foundation with many roots in Maine. Maine Farmland Trust acted as fiscal sponsor for the group (the nonprofit signing on the bottom line on behalf of the network). Mike Gold, MFT Farm Viability program manager, wrote and submitted the final proposal. That’s why all the announcements about the grant award mentioned MFT, but this is the same project, bringing funding to 30+ Maine farmers’ markets!

A sample incentive program promotion: