Are There Enough SNAP Shoppers in My Community?

There are good reasons for not offering a SNAP program at a farmers market, but those reasons are INTERNAL, having to do with capacity and resources, not EXTERNAL, having to do with economic benefits or demographic need.


A market manager I work with closely asked whether there was data to support an argument that accepting SNAP benefits at a farmers market makes good economic sense.  I started with my familiar talking points about the power of the local food dollar, my bread and butter, when she interrupted.  “Yeah yeah, but what about the numbers that matter?”  What she was talking about were demographics, but I was surprised by her comments.

You see, I think the power of the local food dollar does matter, and it matters a great deal.  (See below, “‘Multiplier Effect’ of Local Food”.)  There are literally billions of dollars in SNAP that directly benefit households by putting food on their table.  (In 2011, SNAP, which directly reaches just over half of the food insecure population, provided more than $71 billion in direct benefits households used to purchase food.)  Very little of that ends up in farmers markets—less than 1%, which I think is a shame because I can think of no better venue to support a healthy lifestyle, grow the local economy, and find a fun, supportive community.  The money is there, in every community, and it supports not just the SNAP shopper, but the farmer who sells the produce and the community which benefits from the economic activity.

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Steilacoom Town Hall. Photo Credit: Lin@bates, ssl.panoramio/photo/103360113

Still, I get the point.  What she wanted to know is whether there are enough SNAP shoppers in a given community to support the effort and expense of accepting SNAP benefits.

Consider the Steilacoom Farmers Market in Steilacoom, WA.  Steilacoom is a lovely city in Pierce County on the South Puget Sound, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.It has a historic Town Hall and boasts spectacular views of not only the abundance of Puget Sound, but the awe-inspiring Mt. Rainier.  It is a wonderful, vibrant community.

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View from Saltar’s Point Beach, Steilacoom. Photo Credit: Marine Graphics,

The Steilacoom Farmers Market, which is run by the City, recently became authorized to accept SNAP benefits.  Appropriately, City officials ask whether there is a sufficient shopper base that would justify the cost and human capital of operating a SNAP program. Are there enough SNAP shoppers in Steilacoom, or is it too affluent?

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Steilacoon Farmers Market. Photo Credit: Market Pasta,

Steilacoom does indeed benefit from a certain affluence, but there are SNAP eligible shoppers in every zip code.  To illustrate this point, I rely primarily on two resources, a Washington State Department of Health (DOH) GIS mapping tool and data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).  The DOH mapping tool shows the percentage of SNAP eligible residents and the OSPI Data and Analytics shows the percentage of students in any given school who are eligible for “Free or Reduced-Price Meals”.

Steilacoom is divided.  About half of the zip code, 98388, has a SNAP eligible population of 17.4%, those living closest to the water, while the other half is 29% SNAP eligible.  It’s a fair and conservative statement, then, to say that a little more than 1 in 5 people in Steilacoom are eligible for SNAP benefits.Zip Marked MapBreaking those percentages down to represent actual people, then, there are 1,332 SNAP eligible residents in Steilacoom:

Total Population % of SNAP Eligible Residents Number of SNAP Eligible Residents
Census Tract 721.09 3,468 people 17.4% 603 people
Census Tract 721.11 2,514 people 29% 729 people
TOTAL 5,982 people 22.27% 1,332 people

Looking at OSPI school district data, those percentages are consistent as 21.3% of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Please note, too, that you don’t have to go very far for those SNAP eligible populations to increase.  In particular, Anderson Island, which is accessible by ferry only from the Steilacoom pier and is a part of the Steilacoom Historical School District, has a SNAP eligible population of 42.2%.  Anderson Island Elementary, one of nine “remote and necessary” schools in Washington, has a student population that is 78.9% eligible for “Free or Reduced-Price Meals”.

Accepting SNAP isn’t free.  There’s a tremendous human capital required as well as a willingness to jump in the middle of large bureaucracies that can be frustrating to navigate.  There’s an economic cost, too, even beyond transaction fees or service agreements—there needs to be a responsible person processing benefits on market day.  And getting SNAP shoppers to your market takes a concerted effort over the long haul, too*.  But it’s not just a feel-good venture, SNAP dollars are actual money waiting to be spent, but you have to accept SNAP to get them.


Vade Donaldson, Food Access Programs Manager

“Multiplier Effect” of Local Food

Money spent on local business tends to cause a multiplier effect on the local economy.  One Michigan study, “LOCAL WORKS  Examining the impact of local business on the West Michigan economy”, concluded that if consumers in Kent County, where Grand Rapids sits, increased local spending just ten percent, $140 million in new economic activity would follow, as would 1,600 new jobs, and $50 million in new wages[1].  The study finds that when consumers in the greater Grand Rapids area support a locally owned business over a non-local alternative, $73 of every $100 spent stays in the community.  By contrast, the study found only $43 of every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business remains in the community[2].

The results are similar when applied to local food.  A recent study in Iowa found that every dollar spent at an Iowa farmers market generates $1.58  in additional sales, and every dollar earned by vendors translates into $1.47  in income to others[3].  For every 100 farmers market jobs, 145 additional jobs develop elsewhere in the state’s economy[4].

Certainly, local food is the center of a grassroots food movement growing in popularity and influence.  The local food movement is far greater than just farmers markets and encompasses Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), community gardens, local gleaning programs, food produced for food pantries, restaurants, and institutions alike, and agricultural or tilth training programs to name a few.  Retail grocery chains often support local food promoting local products sale on their shelves.  Still, farmers markets give a good indication of the growing impact of local food.  For instance, there were 1,755 farmer’s markets across the country in 1994.  As of 2011, that number grew to 7,175 [5].  Between 2010 and 2011, the increase in the number of farmer’s markets was 17% [6].

[1] Civic Economics, “LOCAL WORKS! Examining the impact of local business on the West Michigan economy” available at [2] Id.  [3] Otto, D and T Varner. 2005. Consumers, Vendors, and the Economic Importance of Iowa Farmers’ Markets: An Economic Impact Survey Analysis. Iowa Farmers’ Market Association. [4] Id. [5]USDA Agricultural Marketing Service—Marketing Services Division, “Number of Operating Farmers Markets” (Last modified date 08/08/2011).  Available at  [6] Id.

SNAP at Farmers Markets: Small Steps to Expand the Options

By Mahala Greer, WSFMA Food Access Programs Assistant,

When we talk about food access, we tend to get caught up in the theoretical policy of it all. It’s important to celebrate individual victories while working toward long-term systemic change. At farmers markets, where resources are already stretched thin, carving out a small space for food access can go a long way. Implementing a SNAP/EBT program is one food access avenue that many markets choose.

The national conversation around food and farmers markets is changing. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the federal agency responsible for SNAP, works to be respond to the special needs of markets and direct marketing farmers, recognizing their key role in alleviating food insecurity. FNS offers special expedited sign-up events exclusively for farmers markets and direct marking farmers. During our annual conference in early February, WSFMA hosted one of these sign-up events and it was a smashing success!


Photo Credit: Bonnie Clark for WA DSHS

A little context: the process to sign-up for a FNS Authorization Number (the number that says you are able to accept SNAP) is a multi-departmental application process that typically takes between two weeks and 45 days to finalize. These sign-up events condense this process into just a few hours. At our event, FNS approved 15 new applications, twelve farmers markets and three direct marketing farmers. Another six applications were started.

This is exciting for two reasons. 1. There are now 15 new places where SNAP recipients can use their benefits to buy healthy Washington grown food. 2. The farmers participating in those markets now have access to a whole new customer base that will help increase their daily sales.

Farmers markets face very real challenges associated with implementing a SNAP/EBT program. To help alleviate some of the financial burden the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) and FNS have partnered to offer a Free SNAP/EBT Equipment Program to eligible farmers markets and direct marketing farmers. Our sign-up event was structured to facilitate SNAP authorization, and the application for free or low-cost equipment all in one stop. We also have a strong partnership with the WA State DSHS, which offers another option for free SNAP/EBT equipment. Between the two equipment programs, event attendees were able to review options and pick a provider that works best for their market.

We are so pleased for these partnerships that extend the food access network in Washington State. The diverse ways in which markets and farmers engage in food access creates a solid foundation where, together, we can build relationships that both strengthen local agriculture and assert that all shoppers belong at farmers markets, regardless of their incomes.


To keep up with our food access work, email our Food Access Team: or You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.