Feature

How A Questionable Tech Contract Jeopardized Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets

By July, farmers’ markets across the country are in full swing. But for many farmers’ market managers, the mid-season momentum turned to confusion and scramble on July 9, after The Washington Post reported that a change in government contracts could leave 1,700 farmers’ markets without the ability to accept SNAP dollars from low-income customers.

Nova Dia Group, an Austin-based tech provider, processes up to 40 percent of all farmers’ market SNAP transactions nationwide. But two weeks ago, they announced they would discontinue the service on July 31 (this deadline has since been extended by another month). While Novo Dia has largely received the brunt of everyone’s frustrations these last two weeks, it hardly seems their fault. Instead, the debacle exposes a tangle of federal, state, and private entities and a failure to coordinate government technology in a rapidly evolving landscape.

SNAP customers use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards just like a credit card. When a customer pays for groceries with an EBT card, the transaction information is sent from the grocery store to the state processing agency, and funds are deducted from the SNAP customer’s account. With the emergence of programs aimed at encouraging SNAP customers to spend their benefits at farmers’ markets, a mobile solution for card processing had to be created. That’s where Nova Dia’s MobileMarket Plus app comes in—it’s currently the only app that works on Apple systems.

Because mobile devices were often too expensive for markets to afford, the USDA began a program in 2012 to provide free devices, including tablets and card readers, to farmers’ markets. The agency outsources the management of that program through a bidding process. Until last November, that contract was awarded to the Farmers Market Coalition, which hired tech companies, including Novo Dia, to develop the necessary software and equipment. But in March, a new $1.3 million management contract was awarded to a Virginia-based tech company Financial Transaction Management (FTM). FTM had been formed just two months previously and reports only one employee. While Novo Dia stated that they had hoped to continue as a service provider under the new management, it seems that FTM either chose not to work with Novo Dia, or was unresponsive to Novo Dia’s request to bid. Without the government contract to sustain it, Novo Dia President Josh Wiles announced they would be shutting down their SNAP processing system.

1,700 farmers’ markets outfitted specifically for Novo Dia’s system will be unable to take EBT cards

Once Novo Dia closes up shop, the 1,700 farmers’ markets outfitted specifically for Novo Dia’s system will be unable to take EBT cards, a problem that could leave thousands of farmers and hundreds of thousands of low-income customers in a lurch. Markets must now wait for FTM to roll out its new devices and software, a process rumored to take up to six months.

In the wake of the shakeup, a loud outcry from farmers’ market managers, advocates, customers, and farmers has caught the attention of officials. A statement by USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps on July 14 promised to “[explore] all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption.” Two days later, fourteen Democratic senators sent a letter to Lipps expressing concerns. “Any disruption in EBT service at these markets would have devastating impacts on SNAP families as well as farmers who sell their products to these local families,” they wrote. “We ask that the Food and Nutrition Service explore every possible option to ensure there is no disruption in EBT service at farmers markets during this critical market time.”

By July 19, a temporary solution was reached when the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP) stepped in to provide Novo Dia with operational funding for an additional 30 days. A well-known nonprofit that advocates for farmers’ markets, NAFMNP says it’s committed to working with the USDA to find a permanent solution to the problem, but for now, affected markets have at least been bought another month.

 *           *           *

 In March, I wrote about how DoubleUp SNAP programs at farmers’ markets were providing much-needed economic support for small-scale growers. If a service lapse were to occur, not only would countless numbers of low-income customers lose access to food, but farmers would lose critical dollars in SNAP sales at farmers’ markets that they’ve come to count on. Adrienne Udarbe of Pinnacle Prevention, the group that manages Arizona’s statewide DoubleUp program, says that while Arizona is less impacted by Novo Dia’s departure than some other states, “even having just one market impacted is not okay.”

The lowest-income farmers’ markets are more likely to face disruptions

When Udarbe heard the news, she immediately reached out to several farmers markets in Arizona contracted with Novo Dia to offer support. She says the markets were left with two choices: Wait for the free equipment to be distributed by FTM, basically ensuring a disruption in services, or find a way to purchase new equipment on their own, to the tune of approximately $1,000 per market. The latter option means forgoing the USDA free equipment program and contracting with one of the more than 30 other companies that process EBT cards.

Through Pinnacle Prevention, Udarbe launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign to help the markets purchase new technology. The fundraiser generated private donations and caught the attention of two organizations, the Valley of the Sun United Way and Vitalyst Health Foundation, that covered the remainder of the costs. Udarbe says the Arizona markets hope to have funds in place, equipment ordered, and contracts with new companies finalized by this week.

While the Arizona markets were able to fundraise to avoid waiting for the free equipment program, other farmers’ markets may not have that option—the irony being that the lowest-income farmers’ markets are more likely to face disruptions in serving their low-income customers, because there are fewer community members with extra money to donate to the cause.

Udarbe says that any disruption in services for SNAP customers has the potential to erode a foundational element of these programs—trust. “Building trust with both farmers and families has been years in the making,” she says. “Farmers now trust that SNAP is an income source they can rely on to feed their families, and SNAP customers now put their trust in us and in the market to provide them food. When you break that trust, it does a lot of damage and there’s a lot of repair that has to happen.” Udarbe also notes the “trickle effect” a disruption could have on other incentive programs, such as DoubleUp Food Bucks, which allows customers to swipe their EBT card for $20 and receive an additional $20 from the market to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables.

At last week’s market in Payson, the market’s co-founder Lorian Roethlein says a single mother came up to the information booth, having been sent by the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES). After Roethlein explained how the Double Up program worked, the woman began to cry. “She said, ‘Would it be okay if I hugged you?’” says Roethlein. “People who need this program just so desperately need it.”

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Announcement

Why It’s Time to Launch the Disability Justice Initiative

Last Friday night I had the fortune of attending Janelle Monae’s concert. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. I’m a huge Prince fan, and Prince and Monae’s working relationship, the value both place on instrumentation, and Monae’s musical range of influences are all impressive to me. Her showmanship is legendary, and it has a crisp professionalism to it that’s hard not to identify with in a city like D.C.

My husband and I sat in the ADA section towards the back of the main floor—I’m a little person, so the only thing I can see in general seating is other concert-goers butts. The show was extraordinary—it was visually stunning, and emotionally empowering. Towards the end of her set, The Electric Lady took a moment to talk about the dark times we are in and the interdependence of social justice movements. As she rattled them off—telling her fans that we “need to fight for black and brown communities, immigrants, the disability community…” —my jaw fell open. Never, in my (almost) 40 years on this planet, have I heard an artist specifically call out my community, let alone use our preferred language (too often we are called “special needs,” “differently abled,” or “handicapable”). There was a flurry of activity as everyone I was sitting with checked with their seatmate to make sure it had actually happened: That a mainstream artist, at a public event, had just included us in their activism.

Monae was leaning into a shift that we’ve seen take place over the past year. Last month, Ava DuVernay pushed back when fans of Queen Sugar asked her to reverse a character’s Lupus. Many folks felt like having a disability made the character weak. But instead of caving to pressure and “healing” the character, DuVernay focused on how disability adds important complexities. She replied, “[r]espectfully, we can have physical illness and still be whole. That’s what this storyline explores among other things. Many of us live with chronic illness and still we thrive and live and love wholeheartedly.”

I want to be specific about the role black women are playing here. When a community member thanked Brittany Packnett, from Operation Zero and Teach for America, for highlighting the perspectives of the disability community in response to the straw ban and other acts of ableism, Packnett said that it’s “because we’re used to not being listened to.” That open acknowledgement of interdependence makes this feel like it’s part of a bigger movement—the intersectional kind that Monae called for.

We can have illness and still be whole

Most years, this last week in July is the only time that the media turns its attention to people with disabilities. It’s the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so there are usually a smattering of stories about the importance of including people with disabilities in American society. But this year has been different. The ongoing assault on health care has forced the media to grapple with its tendency to cast disabled people as either vulnerable victims or powerful protestors. We’ve seen a phenomenal series of stories by Joe Shapiro talking about sexual assault of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We’re seeing on-going discussion of the trauma being experienced by the children at the border, which will follow them for a lifetime. We saw open discussions of mental health rise when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade died. We got to watch W. Kamau Bell do a #UnitedShades segment with powerhouse Alice Wong, and Drunk History covered the 504 Sit-ins (the longest occupation of a federal building in U.S. History.)

So it feels appropriate that this is the week that the Center for American Progress (CAP) is launching the Disability Justice Initiative. CAP is the first D.C.-based national progressive organization to have a disability shop, and I am thrilled to build off of the work of folks like Eli Clare, Mia Mingus, and Sins Invalid, to work on cross-movement organizing and to center multiply-marginalized disabled people. The project is working to bring the disability lens across issues progressives are working on, and will also work to get progressives to the table as allies and accomplices fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

We are setting a big table—a massive table. We’re including people with mobility, sensory, mental health, and learning disabilities, and calling in our siblings with chronic health conditions (like diabetes, migraines, fibromyalgia and IBS/IBD), eating disorders, folks in recovery from substance use, and people living with and learning how to navigate trauma.

There is not a single issue, whether it be health care, paid leave, immigration, climate change, education, or voting, that does not impact the 1 in 5 Americans that lives with a disability. Now that Americans are starting to recognize that—that we are a part of every community, that we are here to fight, and that we are worth fighting for—it is time to formalize our seat at the table. And we’re leaving another seat open for you.

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First Person

There Is No Summer Vacation for Parents in the Gig Economy

Let the record reflect that I began writing this from beneath my wiggling three-year-old. I had barely cracked open my laptop when he did a backbend across my legs and slid upside-down onto the floor, with a smile so wide I could see the ridges on the roof of his mouth. One of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my laptop, nearly toppling it to the ground. He giggled, and I nearly had a heart attack. My computer is how I keep a roof over our heads, and I can’t afford to replace it.

Welcome to summer break.

I’m a low-income single mom with two kids, and summer break feels like a giant blurry question mark. I cannot take time off of work. We don’t have any vacation plans. I cannot afford to hire a summer babysitter or send my kids to a string of various camps. While I considered more creative options, like kid-swapping with friends, the logistics—work schedules, child temperaments, and distances between homes—became too complicated to figure out. And while I’m all for the concept of free-range kids, this week it’s 108 degrees. That’s about ten degrees hotter than the National Institute of Health thinks humans can withstand before their bodies start shutting down, which means sending the kids outside to play with sidewalk chalk and roll down hills all day is…not a thing.

As a writer, I only get paid when I produce something, which is hard to do with a three-year-old in my lap. So, since earning money must continue through the summer, my entire work plan is to write while my children are sleeping, lean into my coffee habit, and beg babysitting hours from my parents—a privilege compared to those who don’t have relatives able or willing to help.

 *           *           *

Accessing and affording child care is difficult for everyone all year, not just in the summer. For those like me who are living on a single income, the cost of child care cuts deep into our pocketbooks and chips away at our quality of life. To afford child care often means forgoing something else—reliable transportation, household goods, or even food. Today, the average cost of child care for a single child in the United States is approximately $9,000 per year, which is more than one-third of my income.

In fact, the cost of child care ranks near the top of a recent survey that found American women are choosing to have fewer children, or forgo having them entirely—which could help to explain why the childbirth rate has fallen to a 30-year low. In an article about the declining U.S. birth rate, journalist Amy Westervelt writes, “for all its pro-family rhetoric, the U.S. is a remarkably harsh place for families, and particularly for mothers.” It’s also especially rough for contracted laborers—a group projected to surpass 50 percent of the American workforce over the next decade–who sacrifice income each time they aren’t able to take a job. “That gig economy you keep hearing so much about, with its flexible schedule and independence?” writes Westervelt. “Yeah, it sucks for mothers… I can tell you exactly how great and balanced it felt to go back to work two hours after giving birth.”

I went right back to work after both of my births. Less than 48 hours after I had my first child, I was hauling produce on my vegetable farm. Two days after my second child was born, I sat in a business meeting while my milk came in. Now as a freelance writer, most of the time I work 7 days a week writing articles, editing other people’s articles, pitching stories, and chasing late payments. Sometimes I work on projects for months before seeing a dime.

I only get paid when I produce something, which is hard to do with a three-year-old in my lap

While women are increasingly entering the gig economy (a 2014 study showed that 53 percent of full-time freelancers were women), there are real questions about a burgeoning economy that dangles the carrot of flexibility to busy, multitasking women (many of them mothers), yet still manipulates and mistreats them through pay discrimination and abusive power structures. FastCompany reported that “[female] Uber drivers earn 7 percent less than male drivers, while women freelancers charge lower rates, are more likely to get paid late, and are four and a half times less likely to be earning over $150,000.”

And then there’s child care. In 2016 alone, nearly 2 million parents of children age 5 and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or greatly change their job because of problems with child care.

That means many parents—and statistically, mothers more than fathers, due to the archaic, sexist nature of both workplace and household expectations—are forced to cut back hours, miss out on trainings or job-related experiences, or pass up promotions due to the inability to work more or the need for flexible hours. It’s part of the “motherhood penalty” that stunts career advancement and reduces income, which snowballs considerably over a woman’s lifetime. That penalty reduces the ability of entire households—especially those of single mothers—to accumulate wealth or gain social mobility. In contrast, most working fathers earn more than men without kids.

In a conversation on NPR’s 1A about the motherhood wage gap, Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers said, “Our culture and our policies have just failed to account for the fact that we have families. … And in the 21st century, that means we actually need child care. We need elder care. We need paid family leave. These are just basic infrastructure assumptions we need to make that we haven’t caught up to.” She notes the emergence of new ideas and solutions, such as Universal Family Care, a proposed family care insurance fund that working Americans could draw upon to afford child care, elder care, and paid family medical leave.

While I’ve been able to carve out a successful job as a freelance writer and editor, there are limits to my ability to thrive. As a single parent, jet-setting off to cover breaking news or spending weeks away from home investigating injustice is out of the question, even though I think I’d do it well. I need predictability and routine, stable income, and child care for those long days when I’m on deadline. I find working from home while parenting to be beyond frustrating and near-impossible. I literally cringe at the zillionth snack request of the day and the never-ending chorus of Mom! Mom! Mom! Some days I’ve barely written a sentence by 2 p.m.

Still, there is something missing in these conversations about working and motherhood. The statistics cannot measure the bone tiredness of a mother any better than it can articulate the fierce tether that connects me to my children. There is magic in the unmeasurable. There have been actual moments when I have thought, If only someone could see me changing a diaper and typing at the same time. Or the phone calls with editors while balancing a newly-potty-trained toddler on the toilet. How many times I have held a sleeping feverish child while simultaneously racing a deadline. As Rufi Thorpe writes, “It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both.”

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First Person

I’ve Worked for Tips for 60 Years. D.C. Council Should Listen to the Voters Who Want to Raise My Wages.

When people ask me when I’m going retire, my answer is always the same: About 15 minutes before I’m dead. I turn 70 this year, and I’ve been working in D.C.—always for tips—since I was 12. My first job, at the concession stand at Arena stage in the early ‘60s, was one of the better ones. My bosses were kind, and I got to watch the shows that came through town. By the time I got my second job, my wages were 66 cents an hour—not exactly the stuff nest eggs are made of.

Six decades later, I’ve watched this city get burned down and built back up. The Petworth row house I grew up in, on the corner of Upshur and 7th, now costs 75 times what it did when I was a kid. I’ve gone from concessions to catering, from cheap hole-in-the-walls to high-end establishments. I’ve always liked puzzles, and that’s basically what serving is: you need to make sure all the pieces—the people, the staff, the meals, the timing—fit together. The prize for solving that puzzle, day after day, has crept up to a minimum wage of $3.89, plus tips.

Even with tips, that isn’t enough to live on. Many of the places where I’ve worked have found ways to cut into our paychecks, taking a percentage off the top. Some people in the city still made good money working for tips, but a lot of us really struggled. That’s why I pushed for Initiative 77, which would raise the tipped minimum to match the actual minimum wage, to pass. It’s why I was happy when it did, and it’s why I’m so frustrated with the D.C. City Council now.

Last week, City Council Member Jack Evans—who represents the Ward where I go to work every week—introduced a bill to repeal Initiative 77. No compromise, no discussion, just a one-page bill to block the ballot initiative from ever becoming law. Even though the city voted for it overwhelmingly. Even though the slogan on D.C. license plates is about how often the city doesn’t get that chance (“No Taxation without Representation,” it reads). Even though the people who voted for it are also the people who stand to benefit the most: We’re more likely to be poor and black, and to live in the parts of the city where poverty is still rising. Even though the rest of the city is getting richer. Even though one of the Mayor’s signature agenda items is giving black workers a fair shot. Even though all we’re hoping for is a law that would mean we don’t have to worry about how to pay the bills if the rain or the heat keep people inside.

It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d had that kind of stability for the entirety of my 58 years as a server. Maybe saving for retirement wouldn’t have been such a luxury. But it’s not just about me. I, along with a majority of DC voters in 7 out of 8 wards, support Initiative 77 because I feel like I have an obligation to leave the industry better than I found it, to make things a little easier for the folks who come up after me.

People don’t get many chances to have their voices heard in a public way

The obligation to make things better for the next generation isn’t mine alone—City Council shares it. In the District, people don’t get many chances to have their voices heard in a public way. When I started working, city residents had just won the right to vote for the president—almost 200 years after the county was founded. D.C. still doesn’t have a say in Congress, and Congress can still overturn our laws when they feel like it.

To see the city council robbing residents of an explicit expression of self-governing feels like a betrayal. I believe that all of us, no matter the position we hold, have an obligation to try to make things better for the future. If you serve in public office, that responsibility is even greater.

It doesn’t have to be hard. Voters already told you what to do. Initiative 77 asked a question and the voters gave a resounding answer: yes, all of our residents deserve a stable, living wage. Now you just have to listen.

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Analysis

Confirming Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for Workers and People in Poverty

By now, most of Supreme Court Justice Nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s decisions and speeches have been pored over by both advocates and reporters. But comparatively little attention has been paid to a posture that has defined Kavanaugh’s legal career: a consistent willingness to side with the rich and the powerful over the most vulnerable members of society.

While retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy generally has a pro-business voting record, he has often broken with the conservative wing of the court on civil rights cases and issues of environmental law. At times, this led Kennedy to rule in favor of civil rights and against powerful interests.

With Kavanaugh, there are few exceptions to a reliably anti-worker and anti-consumer record. In an analysis of 286 opinions authored by Kavanaugh as a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Adam Feldman of Empirical SCOTUS found that Kavanaugh has “written almost entirely in favor of big businesses, employers in employment disputes, and against defendants in criminal cases.” In fact, according to a leaked document obtained by POLITICO, the Trump administration recently asked corporate interest groups for help with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, circulating a document touting that, “Kavanaugh helped kill President Obama’s most destructive new environmental rules” and that he “has overruled federal regulators 75 times on cases involving clean air, consumer protections, net neutrality and other issues.”

One of Kavanaugh’s recent decisions, for example, concerned the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that has resulted in nearly $12 billion in relief for consumers who were duped by banks or credit card companies. Kavanaugh found that the entire CFPB was unconstitutional, and even questioned a Supreme Court ruling from 1935 that upheld the constitutionality of independent agencies. His decision was overturned two years later by the full court, who called Kavanaugh’s ruling “a wholesale attack on independent agencies…that, if accepted, would broadly transform modern government.”

In case after case, Kavanaugh exhibits a preference for the more powerful party.

And in 2012, Kavanaugh dissented from a D.C. Circuit decision finding that the State Department had inappropriately fired an employee based solely on her age. Kavanaugh argued that the State Department’s decision did not constitute age discrimination. Even though the agency itself did not dispute the reason for the employee’s termination, Kavanaugh said it was “not a close call.” As the majority wrote, “the necessary consequence of the Department’s position is that it is also free from any statutory bar against terminating an employee…solely on account of his disability or race or religion or sex.” In other words, Kavanaugh’s ruling would have also allowed the agency to discriminate against people with disabilities, racial and religious minorities, and women.

And Kavanaugh’s most prominent positions—his decision to block an unaccompanied young immigrant woman from having an abortion immediately or his criticism of John Roberts’ decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—would disproportionately harm low-income people. The most frequently cited reason among women getting an abortion is that having a child “would interfere with school, work or other responsibilities, and that they could not afford a child.” Indeed, when women are denied abortions, they are more than three times more likely to experience poverty two years later. And the antipoverty effects of the ACA are undeniable. Medicaid—which the law expanded—is one of the most effective antipoverty programs in the country, reducing child poverty by 5.3 percentage points. And although the uninsured rate has increased slightly since Trump took office, it is still significantly lower than before the bill was passed.

But perhaps no decision better illustrates Kavanaugh’s ideology than this: in an incident made famous by the documentary “Blackfish,” Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau died after being attacked by a killer whale—making her the third Sea World worker killed by the same whale. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Sea World $75,000 for safety violations, the company appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, where Kavanaugh served. The panel upheld OSHA’s fine, but Kavanaugh dissented. In his view, “Many sports events and entertainment shows can be extremely dangerous for the participants.” But, he reasoned, society should not “paternalistically decide that the participants in these…activities must be protected from themselves.” Kavanaugh’s position would undermine the entire foundation of workplace safety regulations.

As Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress notes, Trump delegated the task of identifying Supreme Court nominees to the rightwing Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, organizations that have made it their missions to dismantle federal regulations—everything from labor law to consumer protections to environmental rules. Kavanaugh’s record suggests he would do just that.

In case after case, Kavanaugh exhibits a preference for the more powerful party—whether corporations, agencies, or the criminal justice system—over the less powerful—whether consumers, workers, or victims of pollution.

That alone should give every Senator pause before they vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.

This article was originally published on Spotlight on Poverty.

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