Joni Garcia of the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged farmers to “tap into the opportunity to build business” before outlining how Virgin Islands Farmers can become eligible to receive SNAP payments.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the program formerly known as food stamps. It is a federal nutrition program that helps recipients stretch their food budget and buy healthy food.
SNAP benefits are given each month on a plastic card called an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card, which works like a debit card.
In the territory, SNAP recipients spend approximately $7.2 million per month, but in the fiscal year of 2017 only 11,820 of those dollars were received by Virgin Islanders farmers.
The national average for SNAP money spent at farmers markets is .03 percent of total benefits.
If Virgin Islanders spent the national average, there would be $216,000 dollars going to farmers per month or nearly $2.6 million per year.
One of the issues in the Virgin Islands is that out of approximately 300 farmers only five are signed up to receive payment through SNAP.
An EBT sign-up and information event at the University of the Virgin Islands’ cell building was held on Tuesday evening in an effort to teach farmers more about the program and take part in an expedited registration process.
According to the Department of Agriculture, farmers should accept SNAP because, “as an authorized SNAP retailer you will increase your customer base, see increased economic benefits for you and your communities, and provide healthy and nutritious options for SNAP recipients.”
More than 25 farmers were in attendance at the event and they learned how to register to see if they are eligible for the program.
Once farmers are approved and receive the machine to process cards they are able to tap into the market that Garcia noted at the beginning of her presentation.
The farmers also learned how being a part of this program provides access to a bigger customer base while providing healthy and local food options to consumers that may not have access to that otherwise.
The Department of Agriculture did a survey with an incentive program in which they offered benefits to persons who purchased food at farmers markets.
Those incentives lead to a 74 to 94 percent increase in consumption of fruit and vegetables in the households that participated while simultaneously generating $1.80 for every dollar spent.
The Department of Human Services has partnered with the Department of Agriculture and will inform recipients of SNAP benefits that these healthy options are becoming available.
Human Services has also applied for a grant that would waive fees ($45 monthly and 15 cents per transaction) to make using the EBT machine completely free.
Once authorized, businesses receive a packet of information that includes rules and regulations.
Businesses are authorized for five years as long as they report any changes to operations (location, phone number, etc.)
The re-authorization process takes place every five years.
Farmers can also register online for the EBT machine here. It generally takes 30-45 days to hear back about approval.
The Economic Development Authority also gave a presentation on a loan that is available to farmers and fishermen. People in those businesses can receive up to $50,000 that would need to be paid back in five years with four percent interest.