Learn more about how federal, state, and local policy and community advocacy can support farmers’ markets.
Thriving farmers markets provide powerful examples of sustainable local food production made possible through citizen engagement. Within strong, regional food systems and connected local food systems, each producer can choose a healthy mix of outlets – including farm stands and roadside stands – that best fits their business plan and customer profile.
Within these regional food systems, citizens can engage on many levels with those who produce their food, assist in the preservation of farmland through municipal action and help to create a more resilient region by supporting policy that encourages more regional production or, as the author Jane Jacobs defined it, “import-replacement strategies.”
Two important existing federal programs that promote direct sales of farm goods are the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. The Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (FMNP), which are run by state agencies in most states, provide fresh, nutritious and locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants and low-income seniors by offering coupons to use with direct marketing farmers. Farmers markets often work with public and private partners to maximize these programs for participating farmers during the summer and fall seasons when they are offered. Both of these programs are regularly threatened with budget cuts, and even at their existing funding levels, benefit amounts are very small — $10 per year for seniors in some states, for example. Additionally, the programs are available in most, but not all states. Secure and expanded national funding levels for FMNP would go a long way towards providing more healthy foods for these at-risk populations and much-needed income for small farmers.
After being created in the 2002 Farm Bill, the Farmers Market Promotion Program are given to farmers markets, local governments, agricultural cooperatives and other eligible groups to help improve and expand domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.
In 2013, the Farmers Market Coalition and Market Umbrella released a report detailing successes of the FMPP project from the 2006 to the 2012 seasons.
One of the most important policy considerations for the promotion of farmers markets is the expansion of the use of EBT cards.
The Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card is issued to people using government benefits, including SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). The cards have been a successful way to reduce stigma for program participants, since people use the card in stores just like a credit card. EBT cards have also been credited with further reducing the already-low rate of fraud in SNAP, but the switch to from paper food stamps to electronic was hard on farmers markets. EBT cards require electronic infrastructure that can be expensive to set up in parking lots or other temporarily market spaces, and in the years following introduction of the cards, food stamp spending at farmers markets fell dramatically. The USDA has a goal to move WIC benefits entirely to the EBT card by 2020 and it is assumed that the FMNP coupons will follow soon after, which will only compound the problem for markets and for its vendors.
Fortunately, in the past few years, innovative partnerships between markets and various levels of government, foundations, community groups, and other stakeholders have dramatically increased the number of markets where SNAP is accepted.
In 2012, 769 additional farmers markets became authorized SNAP retailers, an 31.5% increase since 2011. As of 2012, 3,214 retailers (which includes some farmer terminals) were listed with FNS as farmers market SNAP retailers while at the same time, the USDA reported the existence of 7,864 markets. This represents an enormous gain both for local farmers and for people who use SNAP, who may otherwise have very poor access to fresh, healthy food. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has an online application for markets that want to accept SNAP.
Food Safety Regulations
Another major policy consideration for farmers markets is food safety regulations and determining how they apply to small family farmers and cottage producers. Markets have long advocated at their local and state level for common-sense regulations for small producers, including for cottage food laws in states like Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. However, the regulations that govern farmers are lengthy and often based on companies with risk levels far above that of many small producers.
In the U.S., Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) rules have focused on microbial contamination of fresh produce; the USDA even instituted a voluntary GAP audit program verification program for farmers in 2010. The USDA GAP audit verification program is a voluntary, user fee-funded program.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011, regulates food production on farms. However, under the act, farms are exempt if they average less than $500,000 in food sales annually (for the last 3 years) and sell most of their food directly to consumers, restaurants and stores within the state or 275 miles or less from the farm. (Even with that exemption, farmers do need to check with their state on possible regulations for production, especially with meat, dairy or seafood.)
However, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implements the law, how the actual rules and regulations are written may bring unwanted modifications. Organizations such as National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), National Young Farmers Coalition (NFYC) and Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) among many others continue to speak up on behalf of sustainable and small farm producers. From an FMC email to its members in October of 2013: “In partnership with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and its legal counsel, FMC has reviewed and analyzed the new regulations, and found that they would unfairly burden and discourage diversified, direct-marketing farmers and markets. As they stand now, the rules come down disproportionately hard on local, independent producers who have been the driving force behind the exponential growth of farmers markets across the U.S.
FMC has three major concerns: the FDA’s unclear definition of farms and facilities; the unclear and subjective nature of exemptions for small farms; and the excessive costs that local farmers will incur in order to adhere to new regulations.”
FMC staff member Stacy Miller also wrote about this in an insightful analysis published on Huffington Post in 2013. Stay tuned through the end of 2013 for updates on how the FSMA will affect small farmers.
State and Local Policy
States and municipalities can support farmers markets with progressive land use policies that protect small farms and zoning policies that make space available for markets. The Food Security Learning Center topic on Land Use Planning has more information on this area.
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and Drake University have prepared an excellent publication on Farmers Market Policy: An Inventory of Federal, State, and Local Examples, with overviews of existing policy and recommendations for communities.
In 2010, Community Food Security Coalition and Farmers Market Coalition issued a white paper for municipal planners on farmers markets entitled Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets. The Michigan State University’s Center For Regional Food Systems has produced excellent resources on their site for advocates of local food systems.
Food and Farm Bill
The Food and Farm Bill, reauthorized by Congress every five years, presents a unique opportunity to support small-scale, diversified farmers while increasing access to fresh, healthy food.
Through the Farm Bill, the federal government has the opportunity to:
- expand coupon and other food assistance programs for use at farmers’ markets.
- assist farmers transitioning to organic and sustainable farming practices through market, price stabilization, and other mechanisms.
- encourage marketing of foods grown with more sustainable, less toxic methods.
- promote increased local and regional production, processing and distribution of fruits and vegetables for local and regional consumption.
- increase incentives for local and regional farmers to sell their products at fair and affordable prices in underserved urban and rural communities through retail stores and farmers’ markets, by lowering market fees, transportation costs and other financial barriers.
In support of local food programs such as those listed above, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sponsored the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 (S.679 and H.R.1414) in 2012. The bill’s language was added as an amendment to both the Senate and House versions of the 2013 Farm Bill and would fund much of the support that markets need.
For current policy analysis on the Food and Farm Bill, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition and American Farmland Trust offer updates on federal legislation on their sites.
State and Local Advocacy
Farmers markets are often run by or with the assistance of a farmers market association. Farmers market associations can be the liaison among farmers, the State Department of Agriculture, the agriculture commissioner, health department, city planning board, and market sponsors. Associations can directly impact farmers market-related policy by working with and lobbying local and state officials. For more info on how to communicate about farmers markets to legislative leaders, read the Farmers Market Coalition’s Advocacy Toolkit. To connect with your state farmers market association, see the directory.
Farmers market advocates can have a particular impact on EBT policy at a local or market level. Farmers markets that successfully use EBT can be showcased as models of how statewide or national EBT accessible markets would work. See FMC’s Resource Library for several comprehensive guides to developing EBT programs at your farmers market.
Advocacy Groups and Community Organizing
Organizations that educate and advocate for minority farmers are frequently strong proponents of farmers markets. New immigrant farmers training with Heifer International’s National Immigrant Farmer Initiative are often successful sellers at farmers markets, particularly as they can fulfill demand for culturally specific foods. The Southwest Marketing Network and its umbrella organization Farm to Table work with low income Native American tribal communities to establish farmers markets as a way, in part, to preserve cultural identity and agricultural heritage.
Community development groups and community organizers can also have an important voice advocating for farmers markets. Many markets are — or have the potential to be — real community hubs, bringing people downtown, increasing the customer base for local businesses, making town centers vibrant and safe. In some regions, a coalition of stakeholders such as farmers, grassroots organizations, low income and anti-hunger advocates, public health workers, nutritionists and planners have come together to create and promote farmers markets as places to serve and respond to community needs.
Policy and advocacy work should promote a wider distribution of farmers markets and roadside stands. This would mean finding space for these markets and stands in urban and rural areas by countering the pressure to sell out in the face of development. Policies are needed to educate the public about the potential for reclaiming the economic and environmental health of communities.
It is heartening that while development pressure continues in and around cities, a countermovement to retain and extend farmers markets and farm stands is finding greater support from planners and the general public, while federal programs are promoting the use of farmers markets, especially in underserved communities.