Several farmers markets in southern Nevada accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, but the pricing for their regionally grown produce has been viewed as a potential barrier for those shopping on a limited budget. This report compares the cost of produce at farmers markets to surrounding grocery stores, and shows pricing can be comparable when federal nutrition program benefits are paired with a nutrition incentive.
During December 2018, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area (LVMA) had 14 different year-round farmers market locations, and many of them accept federal nutrition program benefits, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). Farmers markets are healthy food outlets that may help increase access of quality fresh produce. However, the issue of affordability for people with limited financial resources is often cited as a barrier. This report provides a cross-sectional comparison of the cost of commonly purchased fruits and vegetables at farmers markets to those purchased at surrounding grocery stores during June – August 2018.
Consumers shop at farmers markets for a variety of reasons, including freshness, quality, and wholesomeness of the fruits and vegetables they sell (Conner, 2010; Finlayson, 2018; Pitts, et al., 2015). How consumers define quality varies and includes attributes such as nutritional value, flavor, aroma, firmness and color, but most often, they associate quality with overall appearance and texture (Bezik & Nagurney, 2017). Customers also value being able to talk with farmers directly to learn how and where their produce is grown, and how many days since its harvest, something that is rarely, if ever, possible at a grocery store (Lucan, et al., 2015). Typically, farmer vendors can sell their produce shortly after harvest and with minimal shipping involved, so they can offer the freshest, ripest fruits and vegetables at the peak of their quality. Contrast that with grocery stores that receive most of their produce weeks after being harvested and transported over long distances (Farmers Market Coalition, 2019). Locally grown produce also has the advantage of being viewed more favorably than conventional agriculture by consumers when it comes to environmental impact and health (Finlayson, 2018). Thus, farmers markets provide consumers with increased access to fresh, locally or regionally grown, high-quality fruits and vegetables.
In addition to increasing access to fresh nutritious food, farmers markets stimulate the local economy, promote sustainability, and support healthy communities (Farmers Market Coalition, 2018). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize that accepting federal nutrition benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, at farmers markets can further increase access for low-income families by providing an additional place to shop for healthy food (CDC, 2014). However, not all farmers markets have become authorized to accept SNAP benefits, as the process places an added administrative and financial burden on the market manager. According to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, only 37% or 2960 of 8803 farmers markets nationwide accept SNAP benefits (USDA, 2020).
Other federal nutrition programs that promote farmers markets include the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP). Both programs provide a specific group of at-risk, low-income people with vouchers that may be exchanged for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets or farm stands. Vendors must be approved to accept those vouchers, and the programs are only available in states that have been awarded funding, including Nevada. These programs are seasonal and do not operate in every county. Although they are federal programs, these two programs are administered by the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
When available, nutrition incentive programs may further increase a low-income customer’s spending power by adding extra value to existing federal nutrition program benefits. These nutrition incentive programs formerly solely focused on doubling benefits at farmers markets, but have since begun including grocery stores to gain a broader reach. In Nevada, a USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant was awarded to a southern Nevada nonprofit organization to create the Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) Program. The nonprofit made the program available to all farmers markets that accepted SNAP benefits in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area. A few select neighborhood grocery stores were invited to participate in the program to help increase access in underserved communities. However, none of those retailer locations were near farmers markets; thus, they were not included in this comparison.
During the summer of 2018, there were 12 farmers market locations and one mobile veggie truck in Las Vegas and Henderson (Appendix 1). Eight different market locations accepted SNAP/EBT, and six out of eight participated in the Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) Program that matched purchases of SNAP-eligible items up to $20 a day to spend on fruits and vegetables. All markets accepted SFMNP vouchers; however, the WIC FMNP was not available in Clark County at the time of this comparison.
Price comparisons were conducted among the farmers markets that accepted SNAP/EBT and surrounding grocery stores to determine if produce prices at farmers markets were competitive with those at grocery stores. The fruits and vegetables used for this comparison were selected based on a USDA study reporting the fruits and vegetables most commonly purchased by SNAP recipients (Garasky, et al., 2016). Fruits and vegetables that were available at farmers markets at the time of this study were: potatoes (russet), avocado, green beans, corn, lettuce (head), tomatoes (hothouse, Roma, vine ripe), onions (yellow), cucumbers, bell peppers (green), carrots, celery, strawberries, blueberries, red grapes, white grapes, watermelon, cherries (red), apples (gala), cantaloupe, peaches (yellow) and lemons.
Upon visiting each farmers market June – July 2018, prices were recorded for the available items on the USDA’s Top 25 list (Appendix 2; Appendix 3) for each farmers market vendor. The prices for these items were then recorded from two or three grocery stores within a 3-mile radius of the farmers market location.
Price comparisons are presented in Tables 1 – 10. Due to the variability in strawberry and blueberry weights sold, “each” at farmers markets is assumed to be less than 1 pound. Tomatoes, watermelons and grapes were omitted if they did not specify price per pound due to the variability in size and units sold (pound versus each). Most farmers selling at the markets claimed to be certified organic or use organic practices. Although prices for organic produce at grocery stores were recorded, they are not included in this final report. Only the least expensive options are reported, and items are from the U.S. unless otherwise stated.
Although SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks are not accepted at every farmers market, the comparisons were still made to show the potential benefit of taking SNAP and nutrition incentives in those neighborhoods. A similar comparison was not made with grocery stores because it is not likely that they would be asked to participate in the nutrition incentive program as it is intended for small retailers in high-need areas or farmers markets. The grocery stores that were selected for these price comparisons are denoted by a capital letter and number, such as “B2,” while farmers market vendors are referenced using a Roman numeral, such as “I.”