Low-income? No farmers markets for you

Chase fees and this year's budget cuts mean Seattle's Farmer's Market Nutrition Program may be on the chopping block. In some low-income neighborhoods, it could mean serious trouble for the markets themselves.

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Chase fees and this year's budget cuts mean Seattle's Farmer's Market Nutrition Program may be on the chopping block. In some low-income neighborhoods, it could mean serious trouble for the markets themselves.

Over 40 southeast Seattle community members and volunteers from Got Green and Working Washington marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Their destination was the Chase Bank in Othello and they came bearing a gift — a paper turkey made by the local children. They hoped that with their gift, Chase Bank would be compelled to give back.

“Programs are closing. It’s not fair. It’s time for banks to pay their fair share!” chanted Got Green members and protestors at the Othello Chase Bank — a group that included non-English speakers, seniors, and children.

Their chants echoed sentiments expressed at Occupy Olympia’s Move Your Money rally in early November, but this demonstration — aimed at recovering 10 percent of the EBT fees to save the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) — differs from the larger Occupy movement, said Got Green director Michael Woo.

In a written request to Phyllis Campbell, Pacific Northwest Vice President of Chase Bank, Got Green requested that JP Morgan Chase return ten percent of the fees they charge the state of Washington to administer EBT cards and services in order to save the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

Under the current $8 million contract with JP Morgan signed in 2005, Washington state pays JP Morgan a per-case monthly service fee to offer benefits like food stamps and cash assistance through EBT cards, according to DSHS. Cash assistance includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Refugee Cash Assistance, Consolidated Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP), and Disability Lifeline.

In the last five years, DSHS reports that the state’s average monthly food stamp caseload has grown from 251,337 cases to 458,116, increasing the fees paid to JP Morgan Chase to over $3.6 million for the food stamp program alone. Working Washington claims that in 2008, Washington negotiated a monthly cost per case reduction, which locked the state into the current pricing system until 2014. It is uncertain whether Chase will be willing to renegotiate the contract prior to that date.

The Department of Social and Health Services is also trying to eliminate an additional 85 cent transaction surcharge, which is debited from clients accounts when using non-Chase ATMs. The added surcharge amounts to about $100,000 a month taken from the pockets of Washington’s poorest citizens. Clients are also often charged an additional fee by ATM owners on top of the 85 cent fee.

“There is a worsening economy and [the banks] seem to be getting more out of our government, out of our own pockets. There is a broad group of individuals that believe we need some kind of judgment, that we need something back from them,” said Sage Wilson, spokesperson for Working Washington.

After the release of a Got Green survey earlier this year that named access to healthy foods as the top green concern among low-income women of color, members of Got Green learned that the Farmers Market Nutritional Program would be on the chopping block during the November special legislative session in Olympia.

“With the budget cuts and the government cutting from programs for low income families, and you’re running this contract where you get $8 million, isn’t that high enough? That’s a lot of money. As a bank, [giving back] 10 percent should be nothing to you,” said Tammy Nguyen, organizer at Got Green.

Also of concern to community groups is a business and occupation tax loophole that has saved Chase and other big banks about $40 million in taxes. In light of Chase Bank’s profits and the state’s increased burden to support vital programs, Got Green narrowed their focus, asking Chase Bank to give back a small percentage of the contracted fee to sustain the FMNP, which provides farmers market bucks to low income families.

“If you think of it all in context, it’s kind of crazy. Instead of them paying taxes to serve the poor, they’re getting paid to take money from the poorest people,” said Wilson.

“Our community has to be able to frame things in a way that has a greater impact,” said Woo. “We’re doing it in a way that our communities can understand and take part in. When you have multi-racial and both genders supporting the issue, that illustrates the democracy of our group.”

The FMNP served over 76,000 clients through the Women Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program in 2011, according to the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition. The program provides farmers market checks  — a value of up to $20 a month distributed June through September, and often used alongside other benefits like food stamps and cash benefits — so that low-income families and seniors in Washington can have access to organic produce.

According to the coalition, the state must provide a cash match of $100,000 in order to receive over $894,000 in federal dollars to distribute as farmers market funds to low-income families. The federal funds are limited and competitive. If Washington eliminates the FMNP, the federal funds will be given to another state and are unlikely to be recovered, according to the Washington State Farmers Market Association.

“We’ve heard from many WIC clients that say they like coming to the markets. If the program is to go away, it would impact farmers and it would impact those clients,” said Karen Kinney, Interim Executive Director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA).

Farmers Market Nutritional Program benefits can be used to purchase organic produce at 136 farmers markets across Washington, providing business for 885 Washington farmers. It has certainly become a draw for farmers. Kinney says that an as-of-yet unreleased WSFMA survey found that, because so many food benefits are spent there, Columbia City’s market actually attracts a higher percentage of vendors. 

The downside of that is that local markets, like the Columbia City and Federal Way Farmers Markets, are among the most vulnerable to cuts. Columbia City Farmers Market can expect to lose more than $67,000 in revenue if the Farmers Market Nutritional Program is dismantled, according to the WIC-Seniors FMNP records. 

JP Morgan Chase declined to comment on the issue, but provided a follow-up letter to Got Green which detailed Chase’s philanthropic efforts —donating $10.2 million to programs that have applied for funding.

“I’d rather have the state have $50 to $60 million dollars more in their budget to decide what to fund than to appeal to a corporate philanthropy department and let them decide what to fund," said Wilson.

Nguyen and the Food Access Team of Got Green will make a trip to Olympia later this month to deliver signed petitions asking legislators to keep the FMNP. If they are unsuccessful in saving the FMNP, Nguyen persists that recovering the 10 percent from Chase could save other vital programs also on the cutting board this session like the State Food Assistance Program.

“Even if for some reason, the contract itself is not a mechanism that can be opened up, Chase and all the banks do benefit from a significant tax loophole, so there is money that rightfully belongs to the people and the government," Wilson argued. "Whatever source the money comes from, the bigger picture is that Chase ought to be paying more to taxpayers so we can set our own priorities. They can be held accountable through multiple means to do that."


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