August 13, 2018

Monday, August 13, 2018

Farmers Markets Seeking Permanent Solution for Mobile SNAP Payments

The Novo Dia Group is an Austin-based developer that created the Mobile Market Plus app used by many farmers markets and farm stands in the state of Michigan and across the nation to process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Bridge Card transactions.

The company, which processes about 40 percent of SNAP transactions at farmers markets nationwide, announced that it would end its service by July 31. Their shutdown would have left about 1,700 markets that offer SNAP with no way to serve low-income customers, including an estimated 40 to 50 Michigan farm market sites and 35 individual Michigan farmers. This would also have affected “Double Up Food Bucks” and other programs that incentive the purchase of fruits and vegetables, programs supported by philanthropy.

Because farmers markets and farm stands typically do not have the option of accepting electronic payments via land lines, they require mobile devices to swipe SNAP recipients’ Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) set up the Free SNAP Wireless Equipment Program to provide mobile devices to farmers markets. Since then, it is reported that more than 2,500 markets have received card readers, tablets or smartphones. Separately, though, software is needed to process the federal benefits.

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers SNAP through the USDA. The FNS had contracted with the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) for the mobile service; FNS had worked with Novo Dia on the mobile platform. When the FMC contract with FNS ended in 2017, FNS had what they call “an open, competitive process” for a new vendor. In March 2018, Financial Transaction Management (FTM) was awarded the $1.3 million contract.

Josh Wiles, founder and president of Novo Dia, says his company was unable to work with FTM and without continuing to gain new customers and economies of scale, Novo Dia could not remain financially viable.

“Once it became clear that we were not going to be part of [the contract process], we knew we would not be able to scale in a manner that allowed us to be profitable or even sustainable.”

The announcement of Novo Dia‘s expected shutdown left many reeling.

In Michigan, funding was recently included in the state budget to support farmers markets and farm stands to obtain no-cost wireless point-of-sale devices to process SNAP Bridge Card transactions. However, without the app to process the transactions, many of those devices would be essentially useless.

The Michigan Farmers Market Association (MiFMA) is recommending that farmers impacted by the situation begin the process of applying for a device from the state that is not reliant on the software.

“Since funding became available in May, we are finding that it is typically taking a minimum of three weeks from the start of the application process to receive a device. In some cases, it may take longer.” MiFMA is therefore recommending the process be started immediately.

The Governor’s Office of Foundation Liaison explains that, for Mobile Market Plus users, the cost of purchasing new software can be a major barrier, particularly for those users who already received state or federal support to purchase Novo Dia’s products. And, while there are some third-party options to fill the potential void, most have higher up front and operational costs that farmers and farm markets are not capable of supporting.

On July 19, the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP), a nonprofit organization, announced it would provide Novo Dia with operational funding for an additional 30 days so that stakeholder states would not experience any disruption, calling the mobile device solution “paramount for small farmers and markets.”

On July 27, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State and the Farmers Market Federation of New York reached an agreement with Novo Dia to enable SNAP recipients to continue to use their benefits at farmers markets through the rest of the season - not only in New York, but across the country. 

Coupled with the NAFMNP support and the agreement reached under New York’s leadership, farmers are not at risk for losing the software access for roughly six months. Wiles expressed gratitude to both New York and NAFMNP.

“This [support] will not only avoid any immediate disruption of service, but also allows additional time to explore avenues for a long-term sustainable solution.”

That long-term solution is still in question.

Want more?

Learn more about Novo Dia Group and their Mobile Market solution.

Read the FMC press release.

Read the USDA / FNS press release.

Read Governor Cuomo’s press release.



Partnerships and New Commitments Further Michigan’s Clean Energy Journey

Michigan is in the midst of a major energy transition, with many entities playing a role in moving our state’s efforts forward.

In May 2018, two of Michigan’s largest energy providers announced their commitment to new clean energy goals. DTE Energy and Consumers Energy now have a 50 percent clean energy goal by 2030, with half from solar, wind and hydro-electric generation and the remaining 25 percent achieved through energy efficiency efforts.

Michigan's current energy law requires the two utilities to generate 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2021 after they met a previous mandate of 10 percent in 2015.

The new commitment was made as part of a deal with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who had been campaigning for a voter-imposed law on clean energy, Crain’s reports. The goal of generating 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030 meant Steyer and Clean Energy, Healthy Michigan would drop a signature-gathering campaign to put a 30 percent renewable mandate for 2030 on the November ballot.

In a joint statement, Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy and Gerry Anderson, chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, said they appreciated that Steyer and the campaign sponsors had taken the time to understand how Michigan's energy plan “puts the tools in place to achieve this goal in a thoughtful and affordable manner."

"Our two companies are overwhelmingly in favor of renewable energy and are focused on bringing additional energy efficiency opportunities to our customers. We will continue to work within the framework put forward by our legislature and regulators to build on our environmental initiatives to benefit all residents of the state."

In June, Consumers shared plans to close two coal-fired units at its Karn Generating Complex near Bay City by 2023 as part of a plan to eliminate coal completely and reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2040. 

While this progress presents a bright spot for our state, not all of Michigan is serviced by these providers. Plus, about 300 workers will be impacted by the Karn closures, and another 600 people work at the utility's remaining coal-fired power plants.

“We plan to support Hampton Township and the Bay region as they re-imagine the local economic landscape after these units are retired,” Poppe said.

Many of our state’s communities need the opportunities clean energy provides beyond the environmental benefits, including lower utility costs for low-income residents and greater efficiencies for businesses and nonprofits, in addition to the preservation of local jobs.

Acknowledging this challenge, the C.S. Mott Foundation began partnering with CMF in 2016 to explore opportunities with Michigan community foundations to support community-led clean energy transition projects. From this initial research, the C.S. Mott Foundation made four grants to community foundations to launch local efforts which centered around education, demonstration and collaboration:

  • The Community Foundation of Marquette County - To create and distribute energy information materials, develop demonstration sites that illustrate energy efficiency and renewable energy practices and convene an energy awareness community event at the end of the project.

  • The Northern Lower MI Collaborative (Charlevoix County Community Foundation, Petoskey-Harbor Springs Community Foundation and Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation) - To support local efforts to advance the use of clean and renewable energy, serving as a catalyst for greater sustainability efforts. The collaborative is working closely with local governments to support strong community partnership with nonprofits, businesses, and governments and pursue ambitious clean energy goals.

  • The Keweenaw Community Foundation - To conduct a community-wide energy summit, promote energy efficiency among its nonprofit partners and support the installation of a community solar installation. The community foundation is working closely with nonprofit partners and a team at Michigan Technological University.

  • The M&M Area Community Foundation - To work with their community school districts to raise awareness and adoption of clean energy technologies. The community foundation has already completed a successful outreach event to engage students and parents. Recently, Clean Energy Committee volunteers attended the Niagara Community Picnic in Niagara and Family Recreation Day held in Menominee, engaging with local families about easy and practical ways to conserve energy at home and to consider clean energy alternatives.

CMF was also awarded funds by the C.S. Mott Foundation to provide technical assistance, peer learning and additional support throughout the grant period.

Michigan's Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) projects are another exciting improvement in this space. With PACE projects, the participating company takes out a long-term loan via private financing, but unlike a traditional loan, it's paid back via a special assessment on the property over a period of years. The loan costs the company nothing or very little up front but has the immediate benefit of lower energy bills. The assessment transfers from one owner to the next.

Commercial, industrial and multi-family property owners of five units and up in a participating city or county can participate in this initiative, administered by either Lean & Green Michigan or the Ann Arbor Clean Energy Coalition.

Andy Levin, president of Lean & Green Michigan, explains that the property owner saves more in reduced energy costs than the payments on the PACE loan.

“Effectively, they finance the whole thing out of the energy savings."

It was recently reported that between January 2018 and July 2018, PACE projects in Michigan totaled $14.5 million, more than doubling PACE projects in the prior three years.

It is estimated that PACE districts cover 69 percent of our state’s population. Levin says interest is reaching a “tipping point” as more projects are approved and more contractors and lenders get involved.

The two latest projects involve Liquid Web, a data center near Lansing, and the historic Roberts Riverwalk Hotel in Detroit.

Michigan now has 14 PACE projects valued at more than $20 million, and more are expected this year.

Want more?

Dive deeper into the “game-changing” year for PACE projects.

Read more on the Consumers Energy plans for the closure of coal-fired plants.

Read about CMF’s clean energy efforts.


Primary Election Winners and Where the Gubernatorial Candidates Stand on Key Issues

Voter turnout in Tuesday's primary election broke state records, with an estimated 29 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

Approximately 2.1 million votes were cast in the August 2018 election, beating out the previous record of roughly 1.7 million votes cast in the 2002 gubernatorial primary.

Gretchen Whitmer was Tuesday's Democratic winner in a three-person race for Governor; Bill Schuette was the Republican winner in a four-person contest.

On Whitmer’s official website, she shares her position on 12 issue areas, ranging from road repairs and healthcare to Michigan's water and urban poverty. Schuette’s official website includes highlights of his position on eight issue areas, including defending second amendment rights and “the rights of the unborn,” education, auto insurance rates and protecting women and children.

Issue Area Focus: Education

Whitmer’s plan for improving education focuses on quality education from “cradle to career” (i.e. phasing in quality, full-day universal preschool), paths to prosperity with a highly educated workforce (i.e. growing support for project-based learning), respect for educators (i.e. more opportunities for teacher collaboration), and stabilizing school funding and improving accountability (i.e. converting to a weighted foundation allowance).

Schuette’s plan for improving education highlights giving parents and students more choices, ensuring all kids can read by the third grade and transportation scholarships for families that can’t afford transportation costs for their children “to escape failing schools” and gain access to special programs. Schuette also shares on his website information about his ten-point Great Readers On the Way (GROW) Reading Plan.

Issue Area Focus: Economy and Workforce Development

Whitmer says her plan focuses on high-wage skills, closing the economic inequity gap, unleashing Michigan’s economic development potential and helping small businesses compete. She also suggests ensuring every student creates a post-graduation career plan and repealing the Snyder Retirement Tax.

Schuette says he will champion vocational education and will cut taxes, regulations and wasteful spending. He highlights his ten-point “Paycheck Training Plan” for vocational education and job training. His “Paycheck Agenda” includes elimination of the Granholm Income Tax increase as well as ethics and transparency reform.

Issue Area Focus: Opioid Crisis

Whitmer suggests immediate action to expand treatment and recovery services, build on and expand permanent drug take-back programs, invest in treatment courts and hold physicians and drug companies accountable.

Schuette supports legislation to limit prescriptions and supports recent increased federal funding to create education and treatment programs at the state level while slowing the availability of opioids and heroin.

Other Election Highlights: Candidate Diversity

Michigan’s primary election included two potential firsts in regard to candidate diversity:

  • Rashida Tlaib, the endorsed candidate of the Progressive Caucus in the 13th Congressional District, won a six-way race for the Democratic nomination. If elected, Tlaib would be the first Muslim woman in Congress.

  • Michigan Democrats appear to have an all-female slate at the top of their ticket: Whitmer for governor, Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking re-election for her U.S. Senate seat, Dana Nessel for attorney general and Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state.

Want more?

See the complete August 2018 results.


The Wege Foundation

Content adapted and excerpted from an MLive article.

The Grand Rapids Symphony recently received a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the Wege Foundation to weave diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives into all of the orchestra's activities, with the goal of engaging a broader audience and sharing live orchestral music with everyone in the community.

Marcelo Lehninger, music director, Grand Rapids Symphony, told MLive, "Sometime people feel they don't belong, but I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community. We're trying to show them that, yes, they do belong. Hopefully, they'll understand that it's their orchestra, too."

Mark Van Putten, president of the Wege Foundation, shares, "By transforming itself, the Symphony can help transform West Michigan in enduring ways that reach beyond the performing arts."

Officials say the grant will be used in part to support the Neighborhood Concert Series, a slate of concerts and engagement events designed to foster authentic artistic and cultural expression that will happen in venues beyond the concert hall. The first such event was a free, outdoor concert held in July near John Ball Zoo.

The grant will also create new positions in the organization. Funds will establish:

  • A Community Engagement position on staff to develop, manage and coordinate all Grand Rapids Symphony activities to serve the increasingly diverse audience.

  • A Music Fellow who will perform with the Grand Rapids Symphony. During the two-year fellowship, the musician will be mentored by GRS musicians and gain practical experience toward launching a career as a professional musician.

MLive reports that the new Wege grant will also allow for the expansion of the symphony's Mosaic Scholarship program, a mentoring program for African-American and Latino music students, created with funding by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Teens ages 13 to 18 are provided with musical instruments and private lessons with symphony musicians along with opportunities to perform and to attend concerts.

The program will be expanded through Mosaic Music Majors, a collaboration with music students of color in local universities and colleges to mentor, advise and develop the skills and talents of musicians of color seeking to become professional musicians.

The Wege Foundation has shared that Peter Wege’s ties to the Grand Rapids Symphony date back decades. Wege was a longtime season subscriber and a major donor. When the organization moved to new offices in 2004, the former chairman of Steelcase, Inc., helped Steelcase provide all new office furniture. He was the primary sponsor for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s “Piano Pops 2” compact disc, the foundation underwrote the Grand Rapids Symphony’s associate conductor chair, and Wege previously contributed to the orchestra’s Legacy of Excellence Campaign, along with other CMF members.

“Peter was passionate about making sure the arts are truly for everyone,” John Varineau, associate conductor, has said.

"In the past, a symphony orchestra's goal was to perform great works of classical music. Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony aspires, not just to play music for the community, but to make music together with its community," said Peter M. Perez, president, Grand Rapids Symphony. "Truly serving our entire community means we have to genuinely and faithfully be a reflection of everyone in the community."

Want more?

Read the full story on the Wege Foundation’s grant.

Learn more about the foundation’s support of arts and culture.

News type: