Market Central Brings Customer Service to the City Market

By Cecile Gorham, Market Central Chairwoman


Most market patrons have figured out by now that they can use tokens to buy goods at the market.  This is the fifth year that the service has been offered, and it is more popular than ever.  However, do you know the extent of the services and its connection to the USDA and the Wholesome Wave Foundation?  Two Market Central members attended the Wholesome Wave Convening in Washington, DC in late April to find out more about the organization that sponsors the Double Value Coupon Program at City Market.

The token system was introduced at the City Market through JABA in 2009.  Judy Berger, JABA’s Community Nutrition Coordinator, was looking for a way for people with limited incomes to access fresh, local foods at the market.  With the move away from paper ‘Food Stamps’ to an electronic bank card, farmers markets were left out of the retail loop, as they lacked hardware for SNAP recipients to use benefits to make purchases. However, with improvements in wireless technology, farmers market association leaders, using a central wireless terminal and market currency individually designed for each market, devised a way to extend the reach of farmers markets to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries.  The USDA has updated the delivery of benefits so they are accessed on an electronic bank card, just like a debit card.  So now, the USDA SNAP program better serves the two groups of people it was designed for:  small farmers and those in need of food.  The Virginia Department of Social Services now also offers support for SNAP programs at markets with funding for the wireless terminals and SNAP transactions.

With the technology issues resolved, SNAP users could now shop at farmers markets, but there was a perception that farmers markets are overly expensive and not a good value for those on a tight budget.   An incentive was needed to get SNAP users to shop at farmers markets.   Out of concern for food justice, Michel Nischan, a James Beard award- winning chef, author and restaurateur, founded an organization in 2007 “to empower people living in historically excluded urban and rural communities to purchase healthier food by increasing access to and affordability of fresh locally grown food.”   The Wholesome Wave Foundation, funded by like- minded private and public organizations and individuals, sponsored the Double Value Coupon Program at partner markets like ours.  The DVCP allows participants of SNAP to receive double value coupons matching up to $10 of their SNAP purchase per each visit to City Market.  With data collection an important aspect of their programming, Wholesome Wave has determined that sales at markets using SNAP and DVCP have increased from $331,000 in 2009 to over $2.3 million in 2012.  The programs not only increase the access to and consumption of healthy local fruits and vegetables, but increase farmer’s sales at markets.  The 306 participating markets nationwide reported an average of 27% of sales as SNAP and DVCP.  The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, was also impressed enough with the work of the Wholesome Wave Foundation that he came to the convention reception to greet attendees and encourage their continued work to help lower income populations access fresh, local foods.

This year, after three years of service through JABA,  Market Central will be taking over as the new sponsor of SNAP, DVCP and debit at the market.  We will focus on reaching out to the part of the market community that can most benefit from the program, making sure they know of the multiple layers of benefits without added taxpayer costs.  We have a very capable and enthusiastic employee, Kyle Gardener, to run the program this year at the market, and we will be starting service at Farmers in the Park on May 15.

As an added customer service benefit, since the wireless terminal is already set up at the market, customers may also use their debit cards to buy $5 debit tokens to spend at the market.  The very popular service that costs $1 in a card swipe fee is helping to offset the costs of employee, marketing and bank fees. 

We thank customers, vendors, and administration for participating in and supporting the program.  We are committed to make it convenient for customers, and beneficial for vendors.  If you have any questions, want to know more, or have ideas, suggestions, or information to share, please stop by the Market Central table next to the manager’s table at the market. We look forward to hearing from you!