Helping Lower-Income Market Shoppers, Nonprofit or Not

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post Opinion section Sunday written by a gentleman farmer who has sold produce for many years at the Sunday farmers’ market in Takoma Park, Md. His name is Michael Lipsky, and he is also a former professor at MIT and now a fellow at Demos, a public-policy think tank and advocacy group. His story was prompted by his one day of selling at a new market in Takoma Park that appears to target the immigrant and lower-income population of Takoma Park and its suburban environs.

market_sign.jpgWhile he did not indicate that prices were any lower at that market than at the other Takoma Park market, he did indicate that the organization that manages the market had raised money to supplement by matching dollar for dollar the food stamps (now called SNAP) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) vouchers that many of the shoppers bring to market. The organization can do that because it is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) that can raise corporate money and receive grants, which Smart Markets cannot do.

When I started Smart Markets in 2008, organizations such as mine were springing up all over the country to fill a burgeoning demand for locally grown and more carefully grown fresh food. Over a two- or three-year period, the number of markets more than doubled, and the IRS was overwhelmed with this new breed of organization that was needed to provide the organizational underpinnings of those markets. Because farmers are not inclined to organize themselves unless maybe they are farmers who are cultivating many thousands of acres.

We were caught like many other small and similar organizations in a expansion warp that swamped the IRS and caused them to do everything they could to delay our applications without actually declining them. Their problem was that they could not actually justify declining them because they did not have rules in place to do so. Our problem was that we needed to get up and running with some legal structure before the picking season began.

Sound familiar? This is just how the IRS operates — and it makes sense for a bureaucracy for which you and I are paying the bills. They do not waste time formulating rules for situations that have not arisen yet, or at least not in such huge numbers that staff all over the country cannot take care of one at a time with serious attention paid to each application. Which is what we as taxpayers should expect, unless of course you are one of those taxpayers who would like the exemption to get on with your business. We didn’t have millions of dollars and access to a public forum to complain; we just had to accept our fate and wait a couple of years to begin operation or lose our application money, as I did, and move on with another business plan.

Smart Markets can still address some of these issues brought up by Mr. Lipsky, and we can do it without grant money. We are planning to move one market next year into a lower-income community with the express purpose of trying to duplicate the outdoor markets that are familiar to the surrounding immigrant population and with every intention of offering our existing outreach and education programs in languages besides English. We expect to host a workshop for a diverse population of cooks and bakers whom we can teach to cook at home to sell at farmers’ markets. We will also offer assistance at the market to shoppers who will need to know how to shop, how to use EBT cards at the market, and how to substitute unfamiliar ingredients for those that they grew up using in their home countries.

We will work to train and support vendors who are willing to accept SNAP cards, and we will continue to advocate for the state of Virginia to participate in the WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market programs that they have dropped. For a mere 20 percent of the overhead cost of those programs, the state of Virginia has chosen not to spend the money to feed the 15 percent of its population that is hungry most of the time. After all I have read and written in the last five years about the connection between a nutritious diet in the early years and school readiness-to-learn, I see no good sense in the determination and no good result coming from that decision. But here again, we learn to muddle through the red tape and do what we can — thank goodness we look good in red!

We want to ensure that our markets reach out to everyone, but in the course of doing that we can also make special accommodations for those who need a little help to avail themselves of the best foods our local area has to offer. We already share the leftover bounty of the market with several food banks in our area, but we can do more. We all can do more to advocate for ourselves and others, and it doesn’t cost a penny to advocate.