Blog

July 22nd, 2014

MarketLink 101: New Program Proves Integral to Future of Food Access

by Maryland Farmers Market Association

As the 2014 market season nears its height, markets and vendors across the country are taking advantage of MarketLink, an innovative initiative through the National Association of Farmers Markets Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP). The program provides an exciting and cutting edge approach to accepting electronic payments, prompting those involved with the project to know it as “the future of food access at farmers markets.”

MarketLink is the first complete solution for accepting multiple electronic payment types by streamlining credit, debit, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)/ Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) transactions through one smartphone-based application. This application, MobileMarket+, is designed by Novo Dia Group and has been tested in various locations over the past few years. MarketLink is the first nationwide program to utilize the app and wherein any SNAP authorized retailer can obtain equipment and the application to also accept credit and debit, all through one smartphone. As electronic payment continues to rise in popularity and market vendors increasingly cater to those using non-cash options, MarketLink has made payment at farmers markets more efficient, user-friendly, and profitable than ever.

What is MarketLink?

MarketLink consists of: a smartphone, a card reader, and a receipt printer that allows farmers and markets to process all electronic payments – SNAP, credit and debit – through one application installed on the phone. The system’s mobility makes it especially suitable for on-the-go vendors who sell at multiple locations.  The program development has been funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and its primary purpose is to increase the acceptance of SNAP at farmers markets nationwide. An added benefit of the MarketLink program is that the same equipment can also be used to accept credit and debit transactions.

A farmers market is considered eligible for free equipment if the market meets the USDA definition of a multi-stall farmers market and has not been approved to accept SNAP before November 18, 2011. A direct-marketing farmer is also considered eligible if they have not accepted SNAP in the past and at least one market where they sell does not accept SNAP either.

Through the USDA funding, all eligible (see above) farmers and markets are provided a free iPhone 5, a card reader that plugs into the iPhone, and a wireless receipt printer. Participants receive the phone with the MobileMarket+ application pre-installed, allowing them to begin accepting credit, debit and SNAP transactions immediately upon set up. There are no monthly fees with the program, and qualified participants have their first annual fee and 2 years of data fees covered.  Transaction fees do apply; however MarketLink participants have access to nationally negotiated low rates for the duration of the three-year contract.

Vendors who are not eligible for free equipment may also participate in the program. They may purchase whichever equipment option works best – MarketLink offers wired terminals through the iPhone solution – and the aforementioned fee structure is available. Alternatively, vendors can choose to “BYOD,” or bring your own device; this means that they are responsible for providing the equipment and paying for their own data plan but may still take advantage of the nationally negotiated reduced rates. Please see the website, www.marketlink.org, for a full explanation of all of the various options available.

Why Not Use Square or another Card Reader?

Currently, MarketLink is the only technology for accepting all forms of electronic payment that can be used at farmers markets; namely, debit, credit, and SNAP/EBT. Other payment systems, such as Square, do not process SNAP transactions, marginalizing those who access such benefits and prohibiting farmers and markets from catering to an important portion of their customer base. MarketLink enables SNAP participants to access fresh, high-quality, healthy food options at any market employing this technology, making farmers markets a critical access point in communities with limited healthy food options. Farmers/producers who sell in communities with high levels of SNAP participation especially benefit by the increase in sales. In turn, more vendors are encouraged to offer fresh, local produce to low-income communities.

By accepting credit, debit, and SNAP/EBT transactions through the same device, MarketLink offers retailers and consumers the simplicity of a single, user-friendly processing system. Use of this system drastically simplifies payment, which can be an arduous process. For example, a vendor that accepts cash, credit and debit, as well as SNAP and WIC EBT cards must juggle separate machines and processes for each form of payment. It furthermore provides customers paying with SNAP cards the opportunity to shop without conspicuously using federal assistance by making these transactions indistinguishable from credit and debit sales, thus mitigating the stigma of using federal nutrition benefits and encouraging SNAP participants to shop at market.

Incentive programs are a growing trend at farmers markets that welcome federal nutrition assistance benefits. Such programs use privately raised dollars to match SNAP, Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits spent at market, increasing the purchasing power of these individuals. MobileMarket+ saves time for incentive programs by utilizing an electronic medium. Most incentive programs use paper coupons that are spent as cash at the market, which the vendors then trade for reimbursement checks at the market’s close. The MarketLink equipment instead allows incentive dollars to be used at the time of the transaction, removing the administrative burden on market managers of creating, distributing, and collecting paper forms.

Why use MarketLink?

The long-term vision of the program is to facilitate SNAP purchasing in the format that is easiest for the market and its vendors.  MarketLink has the potential to eliminate market-based token systems since every farmer and vendor can have their own equipment. Markets using a token system have to allocate considerable amounts of time, administrative funding, and staffing in order to accept electronic payments. Customers swipe their debit, credit, and SNAP/EBT cards on a machine and in exchange receive wooden tokens that can be used as cash throughout the market. The tokens are then collected from each vendor at the close of the market and counted, and vendors receive reimbursement checks in return. This creates a substantial burden of work for market managers, and can be inconvenient for farmers who, in some cases, may have to wait for weeks before receiving reimbursement. Alternatively, quick payment through the MobileMarket+ system increases the market’s productivity by alleviating these burdens and allowing resources to be reallocated to other operating needs. Staff members who currently serve as EBT program managers can instead focus on other priorities, such as community outreach and program education.

With support from the USDA and in cooperation with partners WorldPay (an international payment processor) and Novo Dia Group (a software development and technology services company), NAFMNP has been able to issue equipment to over 500 vendors so far in the 2014 season. As a benefit to both vendors and community members alike, MarketLink is indeed integral to the future of food access.

*If you are a market manager or vendor interested in participating in the MarketLink program, please click here to check your eligibility: MarketLink Eligibility Assessment.

About the Author Maryland Farmers Market Association