Organics in the News

Seniors’ market program in jeopardy
New rules may cost many in need access to farm fresh produce

By Cara Hungerford

July 14, 2005: Just two years ago, Maine’s innovative approach to the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) was highly praised by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Now the same agency has written rules that will all but break the program.

“If [the rules] go into effect as they are now stated, it will probably dismantle the program,” says Deane Herman, Marketing Manager at the Maine Department of Agriculture.

SFMNP started in 2001 with $15 million, 30 states, 5 Indian tribal governments and three stated purposes: provide fresh, local, nutritious produce to low-income seniors; support local farmers and existing farm markets; and help create new markets for local produce. Today the program serves 43 states, 3 Indian tribal governments and the District of Columbia. In most cases, participants receive coupons which they can use to by fruits and vegetables at accredited farm stands and farmers' markets in their state. Modeled on the earlier WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program, the SFMNP included two relatively minor innovations. First, it added Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) to the list of acceptable marketplaces, and second, it set no maximum benefit level for seniors. These changes, coupled with the fact that SFMNP has remained in a sense a pilot program for nearly four years, have led to a variety of interpretations on how best to meet the three stated objectives.

Maine’s program was one of the first to take advantage of the new possibilities, creating a system that paid farmers upfront, eliminated the need for coupons and made it possible to reach areas where no farmers’ markets existed. “Program flexibility allows us to open [the SFMNP] up to farmers in the boondocks that may not have access to farmers' markets,” Herman explains.

The final rules, which came out in May and gave the SFMNP permanent status, threaten to change all that. The flexibility that was allowed--and in fact encouraged--during the concept phase has as all but been eliminated, and the innovative programs that once earned so much praise are now being punished. Apparently the nationwide program is being squeezed into a one-size-fits-all approach for easy management.

Perhaps the most significant change being made is the limit on individual benefits.
The reasoning behind the benefit cap is simple: the lower the benefit amount, the more seniors served. This model has worked for Pennsylvania, where a $20 limit per person per season allowed the state to reach 174,656 seniors in 2004. SFMNP administrator Sandy Hopple, who has been with the program for three years, reports she has not received any complaints from seniors or farmers over benefit size. “A lot of farmers say this is the ‘best program the state’s implemented,’” Hopple reports.

In fact this approach works for the majority of the participating states and municipalities, but it also threatens to eliminate some of SFMNP’s most innovative programs.

The CSA approach

At the start of the season, farmers in Maine receive a benefit check from the state for each senior signup and in return provide a minimum of five fruits and vegetables over a period of at least ten weeks.

While in a traditional CSA operation members buy into the yearly yield at the start of the season and in return get a weekly ‘share’ of the harvest, the Maine program uses a loose interpretation of CSA model--essentially meaning that the farmer is paid upfront. Some farmers do operate under the traditional method, packing weekly shares and requiring seniors, like all members, to come to the farm or to a designated drop-off site. However, many have developed variations on this arrangement. Some farmers customize the shares to the senior’s likes and dislikes. Others deliver the shares to individual homes or, more commonly, to housing communities with large populations of participating seniors. Still others have implemented a "draw-down" method where seniors are given a credit at a farmers' market stand or on-farm market. The produce they purchase is deducted from their balance until it zeroes out. More than half of the participants are using the draw-down method.

A share in the Maine CSA program is $100.

That figure--which now threatens the future of this award-winning program--was the result of considerable planning and discussion. “We. . . felt $100 was a good amount of produce to make a difference in the health of an elder person. We just didn’t feel that $10-20 over the course of a season could do that," explains Mary Walsh, manager of community programs at Maine's Bureau of Elder and Adult Services and a member of the initial planning committee.

The program serves 7,500 seniors. This represents roughly 10 percent of Maine's total eligible population, a fact the committee did consider when they set their limit. “We are aware of the trade off,” Walsh says, “but we feel we make a difference.”

According to a satisfaction survey sent out by the Maine Department of Agriculture to participating seniors, 92 percent reported eating more produce and over 90 percent found the program of high quality and said they enjoyed participating in it.

“It’s party time. Besides providing good food there is this whole socializing aspect to the program. A farm may deliver to a senior center, a housing site, to shut-ins, to seniors that may never get out to a farmers’ market and they are thrilled,” Herman reports.

Farmers have also been happy with the program, with 90 percent reporting participation was good for business and more than half saying they would like to increase their participation—if benefit levels remain where they are. For $100, farmers are responsible not only for providing produce but also signing up seniors, monitoring participation, arranging for food distribution and handing out nutritional information. According to a 2004 survey, only 9.3 percent of farmers said $50 a share would be a large enough amount to justify their participation.

“The USDA doesn’t have a clue,” Herman says, “A [CSA] share costs an average $450 a season. We are asking them to accept $100.”

An island unto itself

“They are going to kill the program in Hawaii,” reports Judy Lenthall, Executive Director of the Kaua’i Food Bank, which runs the SFMNP for the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Lenthall is so floored by the $50 cap, which represents a 65 percent reduction in benefits for the seniors she serves, she hasn’t even read the rest of the rules. “Fifty dollars a year is so cruel,” she laments.

In Hawaii, where the average annual income of participating seniors is just under $10,000, the statement loses some of its melodramatic undertones. The cut will mean a loss of one percent of their incomes. Before the program began many of these seniors were forced to choose between buying medication and buying food. Medication usually won. Lenthall says she's received letters from doctors reporting that seniors in the program find themselves taking fewer medications as a result of eating more healthful foods. Lenthall, who often delivers to shut-ins herself, has seen the difference first hand.

“There’s spring in their step,” she says. Where it once took ten minutes for a senior to come to the door they now make it in five.

Hawaii has other challenges too, including a high cost of living--Honolulu ranks among the most expensive cities in the U.S., and outlying areas can be even pricier--a year-round growing season and, perhaps the biggest problem of all, the less is more mantra does not work in Hawaii.

Hawaii's program serves 2,900 seniors, and operates though the Kaua’i Food Bank, which gathers the produce from farmers. The Food Bank stores the food, packs the baskets and distributes the food to seniors. Hawaii threw out the basic model early since, as Lenthall explains, a hot tropical sun, farmers' markets and seniors don’t mix. The solution has worked for the farmers too. Kaua’i agreed to mix different shares for different drop off points so small farmers don’t have to provide for the entire program just enough to serve all participants at a drop-off-point. To expand the program would mean heading to another island, says Lenthall, and even with the benefit cuts there wouldn't be enough funds to make a new operation possible. As a result, lower payments will not translate into more participants.

Other challenges

Hawaii and the Maine are not the only programs facing major overhauls, loss of benefits or even closure. California, Puerto Rico and Florida must also find ways to address a near year-round growing season with benefits that amount to less than a $1.00 a week.

There are other concerns with the rule too. Delivering fresh produce to prepared meal services will no longer be an option. This will be another blow to the Maine program, which uses the option to reach more seniors and more farmers. By dedicating between a tenth and a quarter of their funds to programs such as Meals on Wheels, Maine allows farmers who specialize in a single crop to participate and at the same time reaches seniors who would never make it a farmers’ market or even a drop-off site--and these seniors are often the ones who need the program most.

Walsh explains how this aspect of the program works: A farmer who grows blueberries, for example, would bring $100 worth of blueberries to the participating organization. which then uses them in a recipe or delivers them fresh to the seniors. “Blueberries are something a homebound person may not be getting otherwise,” she explains. “The bulk shares really allow us to stretch the program further.”

The new rules also make the 185 percent poverty ceiling mandatory. Previously, states could petition to raise the limit. This is an option the New York program exercised, using the state's high cost of living to justify using a 200% poverty ceiling.

Finally, the new rules have come under criticism for allowing only 8 percent of the funding to pay administrative costs. According to a report by the agriculture policy group the Northeast Midwest Institute, this is lower than all federal safety net programs and much lower than the 17 percent allowed for the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition program.

Titled “SFMNP: Legislative History and New USDA Proposed Rule,” the report also identifies programs using the CSA model and those with a longer growing season as those most likely to be affected by the new share limit.

“The USDA has made the assumption that a CSA program is somehow inferior to coupon programs but [the Maine program] is probably meeting the objective better than any other program in the country,” Herman challenges.

When the program began in 2000, there were only about twenty CSAs in operation in Maine. Today there are 178 CSA farmers participating in the program, many of whom had no idea what a CSA was before they learned of the SFMNP.

In the end probably the greatest fault of the new rules is that they try to make fifty unique states abide by a strict interpretation of a single program. The SFMNP's initial flexibility led to the development of many highly praised programs while the similar but more restrictive WIC program still struggles to find its niche.

“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. Ever,” says Lenthall. “The seniors love it. I’ve actually seen benefits in their health.”

Now facing a $244 cut per senior, Hawaii’s program is in serious danger of having to close its doors.

“This one size program just won’t fit our lu’au feet,” Lenthall sighs.