Working the market info booth – a success story from Augusta

A strong Maine Harvest Bucks program requires a good deal of effort, and often one person can make a major difference. This was the case for the Augusta Farmers’ Market at Mill Park, which first began offering SNAP nutrition incentives in 2014, and added an “info booth” (where SNAP and other transactions are processed) in 2015. The market’s SNAP program grew in the first couple of years, and market vendors were supportive. However, it didn’t quite take off as expected.

Enter Wendy Jackson, the SNAP Clerk at the Augusta Farmers’ Market at Mill Park. Beginning in 2016, Wendy has brought energy and enthusiasm to the market’s info booth, and the market’s Maine Harvest Bucks program has grown noticeably as a result. That means more families in the area are accessing fresh, local foods, while leveraging their SNAP dollars through Maine Harvest Bucks! We’d love to clone Wendy, but since that’s not possible, we spent some time learning about her work at the Mill Park Market, and what motivates her to work so hard.

Wendy Jackson (right) at the Mill Park info booth, along with market Treasurer, Dalziel Lewis (of Dig Deep Farm).

Below is a recent interview with Wendy about her role at the Mill Park Farmers’ Market.

MFFM: When did you start at the market, and how did they find you?

Wendy Jackson: I began working at the market in April of 2016. My daughter was one of the vendors at the winter market and she required help getting to market. I took the opportunity to get to know the people she was spending time with, and try out some items. I had taken some adult ed bookkeeping classes with the hopes of getting a better  [part time] job. My other part time job recognizes the benefit for me to have both positions and is willing to be flexible so that I can be available for market as needed.

What skills did you bring to the position that you feel have been especially helpful?

I have attention to detail and some bookkeeping classes and experience, but I really think what was most helpful was seeing that I could be friendly and help promote market items and vendors just by being friendly.

I try to encourage SNAP customers during their first encounter with the market. I point out that the vendor sheets we pass around are the same for all card carriers [i.e. credit/debit included]; there is no difference for them because the card is EBT/SNAP.  I think my encouragement goes a long way. Often [SNAP shoppers feel] discriminated against, but this is one time they have a privilege. I try to make them feel excited about eating healthy, doubling their food money and making purchases from vendors who are happy for the sale…

I’ll explain that some people prefer to shop first for milk, bread, meat and cheese, cash out and collect Harvest Bucks and those go around and pay vendors directly with the Harvest Bucks for fresh fruits and vegetables… I tell them others spend at the beginning of the month as they normally would, but at the end of the month when they have less money available, they use the Harvest Bucks to stock up on fresh produce. We have both sorts of shoppers. We also have people who are collecting Harvest Bucks to spend later in August and September when the harvest is bountiful because they will can and freeze vegetables and fruit themselves.

On rainy, cold Tuesdays, or hot, humid Tuesdays, what impels you out the door in the afternoon and over to the market?

Over the last year I have shared friendship with several of the vendors and that makes a difference. I feel I am helpful and that they need me. They demonstrate value in my work by paying me, regularly telling me how awesome I am, and gifting me a goody bag each week (donations from the vendors). The goody bag is awesome!

The farmers’ market takes place ever Tuesday afternoon from 2-6pm under the pavilion in Mill Park.

What are the challenges – do you have any general comments, or particular stories?

Last year we had some financial challenges that we hope to avoid this year… We are more cautious and have created teams of people that work together to prevent this from happening again. It was also hard to not get timely payments for harvest bucks reported. For a period of over a month, we were not paying vendors for Harvest Bucks received. Our vendors had become used to a payment each week and we did not have the money from FINI to pay them. [Wendy is referring to a period in late summer 2016 when MFFM’s funding through the FINI grant was unexpectedly held up for more than a month.] I kept clear records and worked to help vendors trust me and the process and we eventually got everyone paid in full. I could not make a payment come to us, but the vendors could refuse to receive Harvest Bucks if they preferred. They all saw the value in continuing to receive them even though payment was delayed. It was challenging, but we did okay.

What have you learned from the farmers or shoppers?

When the shoppers learn about the benefits of using EBT and Harvest Bucks at our market they are so excited. What was educational was the relationship this caused with the vendors. Our vendors are glad to receive Harvest Bucks and excited to see the people who carry them walk to their stands. This money helps the vendors almost as much as it helps the families relying on EBT. Many of our EBT customers are elderly, disabled or young parents. It is good to see them trying to take care of themselves.

What is most rewarding about the position?

Surprisingly, the relationships formed with regulars. Last year one mom would sometimes come, [who was suffering an acute illness], sometimes she was too weak, but her young child and husband would come. This year she is doing much better! It was good to build a relationship with the child and offer a listening ear for the struggles the family faced. This example is extreme, but there are many relationships. Seeing the regulars and learning of their accomplishments and struggles and being friendly with them is very rewarding.

Thank you, Wendy, for taking the time to answer these questions, and thank you for your work for the Maine Harvest Bucks program!

What can other market’s learn from Wendy and the Mill Park Farmers’ Market? The job of market clerk is demanding, and typically there is very little (or no!) pay. And yet having trained staff or volunteers who consistently work the booth at the market makes a huge difference for shoppers and for market members. We stopped to reflect on the interview, and focused on these takeaway points:

  • Attention to detail is crucial, and having some bookkeeping ability is a big plus. Flexibility is a plus!
  • Feeling positively about the SNAP program helps the info booth staffer convey details to shoppers in a genuine and friendly manner that will make them feel welcome.
  • A farmers’ market SNAP clerk/volunteer probably needs to highly value the opportunity to meet new people and build relationships.
  • Longevity matters: keeping loyal volunteers/staff over multiple seasons means they will be not only increasingly competent, but increasingly innovative as well.
  • When market farmers demonstrate their appreciation for staff/volunteers, it has a very positive impact on morale.