Thanks to the agriculture industry in the United States — farmers, ranchers, meat and poultry processors and produce growers — there is more high-quality food and good nutrition available here than anywhere else in the world. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

Yet, one constant criticism of America’s food system is poor people and others with less disposable income have less access to high-quality, nutritious food. Numerous reports have shown that low-income people tend to consume food that isn’t the most nourishing, limited by a lack of money or the unsteadiness of their incomes.

But that could change, thanks to money the US Dept. of Agriculture is making available to farmers markets across the US. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced $4 million in awards and grants to help states expand the availability of wireless technology in farmers markets not currently participating in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps.

According to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, most farmers markets in the US are not equipped to accept payments from customers using government benefits, a system called Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), because most farmers markets aren’t set up with the wireless Internet or landline connections that would make this possible. Most markets accept only cash, occasionally checks, making buying at these markets a problem for low-income shoppers. In fact, of the roughly 7,100 farmers markets in the US, less than a quarter are set up to use EBT. Merrigan hopes the grants to farmers markets will make another 4,000 able to accept the electronic food stamps.

Food-safety oversight

That all sounds good, but there’s another problem. Even though the number of farmers markets doubled in the past five years, food-safety oversight and regulation in the markets hasn’t kept up with this increase.

New farmers markets are springing up in old buildings, parking lots, in towns and city parks. This is occurring, in part, because of USDA’s increased emphasis on the production of “local” foods for “local” consumers.

From a food-safety vantage point, the good part is that USDA and FDA set food-safety inspection guidelines for farmers markets. What’s not so good is that states and localities are mostly responsible for carrying out the inspections, based on how they interpret the guidelines. Unfortunately, the number and quality of these inspections vary widely. The Food Safety Modernization Act that became law two years ago gives the FDA new and additional power to demand food-safety plans be carried out by stand holders in these markets, including Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans. Food-safety inspectors are also required to recall hazardous and unsafe foods. Draft regulations for this new food-safety law are expected early this fall, and these draft regulations are expected to cover farmers markets, and should make some improvement in food safety standards. But jurisdiction over the markets, and decisions about how frequently to inspect them, fall on a huge number of local or state health and agriculture departments, and can be very different from place to place.

For example, meat and poultry sold in farmers markets comes from USDA-inspected or “equal to” state inspected facilities. The vendors buy their products from a slaughterhouse or further-processor and sell them in the markets. In farmers markets, stands sell a wide variety of products that will now be available to food-stamp patrons, thanks to the federal grant money, including ground beef, jerky, steaks, sausage and bacon, as well as natural, organic and pasture-raised meats, plus meat and poultry from heritage breeds of meat and fowl. By using local products when possible, small and very small meat and poultry processors are able to sell their products in the local area. Even retailers and vendors selling products coming from larger inspected processors fabricate the meat products they buy (by carrying out further processing). They are able to do well at farmers markets, especially if there are more buyers available, thanks to more markets participating in the SNAP program, as a result of the federal grants.

Unfortunately, while markets have grown, and the grant program is making more nutritious food available to people without access before, the food-safety regulations haven’t kept up. Hopefully, the new regulations stemming from the Food Modernization Act will help to remedy this situation and make farmers markets a benefit for everyone.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.