Helping low-income New Yorkers gain access to healthy food
November – December 2016
Alex Frankel, Wei Ting Kuo
User Research, Content Strategy, User Testing, Project Management
Last year, 137 of New York City’s 142 farmers markets accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, as a form of payment. In addition, those who used their SNAP benefits at participating farmers markets could increase their purchasing power by 40% through an incentive program called Health Bucks; for every five dollars spent, users received two additional dollars. But most New Yorkers are unaware farmers markets accept SNAP payments, let alone offer a considerable incentive for using their benefits there.
Of the $236 million distributed to New Yorkers through SNAP in 2015, only $918,000 was spent at Grow NYC’s Greenmarkets, the largest network of farmers markets in the five boroughs. My team and I sought to find out how to improve sales at farmers markets among SNAP users, which would not only increase access to healthy and affordable produce for low-income New Yorkers, but also benefit the regional agriculture economy.
In initial interviews with vendors and consumers, we learned that farmers markets in New York City are an important access point for city residents to obtain high-quality and healthy food directly from producers. They’re also essential to local farmers in bolstering income and sustaining regional agriculture; farmers of course wanted to see sales improve. During this research phase, we came across GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange annual report, drawing us to focus on access to farmers markets for low-income New Yorkers.
Other nonprofits that manage farmers markets include Just Food and Harvest Home, and their missions explicitly focus on increasing access to locally sourced, healthy food for underserved New Yorkers. We focused on GrowNYC’s Greenmarket because it is the largest network of farmers markets in the city, with more than 50 across the five boroughs, and the only one that operates markets year-round. (By the time we launched our project in mid-November, only year-round farmers markets were open.)
In addition to ethnographic research conducted at farmers markets in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and desk research on SNAP and New York City farmers markets, we interviewed SNAP beneficiaries, GrowNYC staff, and Greenmarket vendors. We tried to speak with customers at the Greenmarkets themselves, but due to the sensitive nature of the topic and limited time, we were unable to interview Greenmarket shoppers using SNAP benefits.
A report published by the Cambridge University Press was immensely helpful; after interviewing more than 3,400 New Yorkers, including more than 2,200 farmers market consumers, researchers found that 24% of SNAP users who shopped at farmers markets didn’t know about the Health Bucks incentive.
In our own research, we found that GrowNYC had launched an ad campaign during 2016 aimed at spreading the word about using SNAP and Health Bucks at farmers markets. When we showed an ad from the campaign to one of the SNAP beneficiaries we interviewed, she pointed out that although the subway ads and murals were colorful and eye-catching, they didn’t communicate the benefits of the incentive.
Results and Recommendations
We identified opportunities for improvement with the 2016 ad campaign, most notably, stating the incentive of receiving two dollars for every five SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets in a clear and obvious manner.
We tested out our hypothesis by creating a poster and displaying it in the Upper West Side close to a public housing development and an open farmers market. We also handed out fliers in English and Spanish created by the New York City Department of Health, with a map and list of farmers markets across New York City, and an explanation of the Health Bucks incentive. We were happy to inform New Yorkers of this important initiative and drive traffic to the open farmers market.
Our other recommendations included:
- Prominently display fliers and posters about Health Bucks at SNAP centers, so that when residents are applying for benefits, they’ll start to learn about the using SNAP and Health Bucks at farmers markets.
- Partner with community-based organizations that already work with low-income New Yorkers to help inform them about the benefits of using SNAP at farmers markets. This includes using their social media channels.
- Make information about SNAP and Health Bucks available at libraries, often information hubs for many New Yorkers who lack digital access at home, according to a study by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Digital Strategy. Community centers, health clinics, and public housing developments are examples of other places where fliers would be effective.
- Brand consistently at the farmers markets themselves, including at information tents and each vendor’s stand. We saw signs about SNAP and EBT at the farmers markets we visited, but they varied greatly and were sometimes not strategically placed. With consistent branding and intentionally placed signage, information about SNAP and Health Bucks can be conspicuous, clear, and familiar to users.
If we had more time, we would have loved to connect with staff from government agencies and nonprofits that implement SNAP, as well as representatives from Just Food and Harvest Homes to learn about their initiatives. It would also be helpful to go lower income neighborhoods when the seasonal farmers markets reopen to speak with residents about why they may or may not shop at farmers markets.
One of the most important lessons I learned from this project is that codesigning with people in the target audience is essential to any successful design process. I was also surprised by how heavily I relied on personal networks to connect with relevant interviewees.