Can we incentivize farmers market shopping?

North Creek's farmers market. NCPR file photo.

North Creek's farmers market. NCPR file photo.

The popularity of farmers markets has exploded over the last decade. In many places, they've become huge tourist attractions and economic hubs of a community. Yet the number of people who buy local produce and goods at these markets remains incredibly small compared to the number of people who get their food from the good ole' supermarket.

I've been noticing a bunch of efforts lately to push more consumers towards farmers markets, both for health and economic reasons.

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday a $1.8 million program to give more than 100,000 senior citizens checks worth $20 that are redeemable at farmers markets across the state. According to the press release:

“The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program is an important resource that provides New Yorkers with access to fresh, locally grown produce while also supporting the local economies and agricultural sector,” Governor Cuomo said. “Through this program, we are connecting more than 100,000 low-income seniors across the state with affordable, healthy food options in their communities and providing a boost to local farmers bringing their products to market in every region of the state. I encourage all eligible New Yorkers to take advantage of this program and see what New York’s farmers have to offer.”

Two New York City hospitals announced on Tuesday that they'll partner with a Connecticut-based not-for-profit called Wholesome Wave to allow doctors to actually write prescriptions for unhealthy, low income people to get coupons redeemable at farmers markets. Wholesome Wave describes its Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program this way:

FVRx™ is designed to provide assistance to overweight and obese children who are at risk of developing diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The program is intended to provide direct economic benefits to small and midsize farmers and bring additional resources into the local economies of underserved communities.

Wholesome Wave says the program was already serving 12 sites in seven states before it signed on the NYC hospitals.

Last week, I wrote about Gardenshare's farmers market program for food stamp recipients. And many farmers markets have been able to accept food stamps straight up for years.

Can government and other organizations drive a change in consumer habits? Will people be more likely to buy at farmers markets if they can get a few bucks off?

It hasn't been easy in the past, even after several studies have found in-season produce at farmers markets is already cheaper than the same food in the supermarket. From The Atlantic in 2011:

A report released earlier this year by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy who did the study for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, found that prices at farmers' markets for conventionally grown produce items were lower than they were at supermarkets. For organic items, farmers' markets beat grocery stores every time hands down.

Other studies have found it's more a question of publicity than price that is keeping people from shopping regularly at farmers markets.

All this raises another question: should the government or NGOs be doing this at all, or should The Market itself drive change when people want that change?


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One Comment

  1. Food stamps (SNAP) only amount to about $4.50 a DAY to recipients so folks receiving those benefits are not likely to be shopping at a farmers market. This low number is why so many of them use the benefits to eat at McDonalds or buy candy bars, because they're cheap (if crappy). Maybe the SNAP benefits should be higher if people use them to shop at places like farmers markets where they're both getting healthy food and directing the money toward local farmers.