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By Sarah Ovaska-Few, NC Health News

At farmers markets around North Carolina, the tables are piled high with tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, peaches and more.

But even as the growing season peaks, some folks who might want to buy will have a harder time bringing those fresh fruits and vegetables home.

That’s because the technology company that currently processes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) benefits at 40 percent of the country’s farmers markets will stop doing so at the end of July.

Left in the lurch in North Carolina are 45 farmers markets, farm stands and mobile markets and the low-income customers that use their SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to buy that produce through a purchasing program that runs off of Apple iPads and iPhones, according to Lisa Misch, a program coordinator who works on food access issues for the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International.

The Austin-based Nova Dia Group confirmed to the Washington Post early last week it planned to cease operating the technology it sells to farmer markets after July 31, setting off a panic among those who run farmers markets and public health officials working to boosting SNAP use at those markets.

The company’s president told the Post it was shutting down its software because of the intricate security measures needed to process SNAP benefits as well as a recent decision at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the SNAP, to contract with a new electronic-payment company that left little room for Nova Dia to sell its software to new markets.

Progress at risk

Getting healthy food into the hands of low-income families has been a complicated public health challenge, with food deserts around the state making it difficult for struggling families to find and buy fresh produce and meats.

Nonetheless, North Carolina saw a steady uptick in the use of SNAP benefits at the more than 200 farmers markets and farm stands in North Carolina that accept the food assistance benefits, according to USDA data.

The USDA numbers show while the nation as a whole saw SNAP use increase by 35 percent from 2012 to 2017, it skyrocketed by 204 percent in North Carolina during that period, with more than $328,000 spent in 2017.

Any interruption could end up discouraging those who depend on SNAP from coming back to local markets, a blow to years of public health efforts to promote buying locally grown produce, said Lindsey Haynes-Marlow, an N.C. State University assistant professor and extension specialist who works on food access issues.

Local farmers markets may be the only option some have to get fresh food, Misch noted.

“For many communities, a farmers market or mobile market may be one of the few or the only option to get local produce,” Misch said.

That is the case for many who visit a farm stand in downtown Wilmington operated by Feast Down East, a nonprofit seeking to improve access to fresh and healthy foods in the coastal area.

The group has been running a farm stand on Friday mornings for five years near Rankin Terrace, a public housing complex in Wilmington’s downtown with no nearby grocery stores. This past Friday, Jordyn Appel, the market manager, had a summer’s bounty of blackberries, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, blueberries, zucchinis and more for sale.

Most pay cash at the weekly market, but about 10 to 15 percent of Feast Down East’s sales are through SNAP, Appel said. SNAP purchases end up being matched, giving those who use their benefits twice the amount of food.

Back to paper?

Feast Down East plans to launch a mobile farmers market in August that will sell produce at other public housing complexes and other areas where residents lack ready access to affordable, fresh foods.

The group recently signed up with Nova Dia’s software, choosing to go with its technology because it was in such high use across the nation and could be used over Wi-Fi or mobile lines.

USDA officials indicated they were working to find a solution but knew few other vendors that could step in and take over operations immediately.  Only Nova Dia software works on Apple products to process SNAP benefits.

Being able to process EBT cards is essential at markets that serve low-income customers, and Appel said she doesn’t know how the mobile market will work if she has to switch back to using paper vouchers.

Vouchers require her to collect people’s information and then call a hotline to confirm eligibility and benefit balances.

Not only does it take several minutes, it also makes people less likely to stop and pick up produce from the stand.

“It definitely deters people from buying,” she said.

“USDA has been exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption,” said Brandon Lipps, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administer, in a statement Monday. “Our No. 1 goal is to mitigate the impact on our program participants as well as farmers and producers.”

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