Use of food stamps at farmers' markets rises nationally

Posted

Tuesday, August 26
BRATTLEBORO -- A pilot program that began last year in Vermont in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls to allows consumers to use food stamps at farmers' markets is now spreading across the state, and the rest of the country.

In 2007, the experimental service was set up at the two Windham County markets. While there were a few glitches with the wireless technology, six other markets are also trying the service out this season across the state.

And at other markets from Maine to Hawaii, farmers are introducing the electronic debit systems that allow low income families to use their federal food assistance dollars to purchase local fruits and vegetables.

The number of farmers' markets across the country accepting electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, transactions increased from 532 in 2007 to 605 as of June 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Nancy Montanez Johner, said both food stamp recipients and farmers have benefited from the success of the program.

"Farmers' markets give food stamp recipients opportunities to improve their nutrition by increasing their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables," Montanez Johner said. "The Food Stamp Program also benefits local farmers by bringing additional customers to their markets to purchase their products."

In Connecticut, the number of farmers' markets accepting EBT transactions rose from five in 2004 to 18 in 2007.

New York saw its overall EBT use at farmers' markets jump 52 percent between 2006 and 2007.

And in Michigan, where two markets were set up to accept EBT sales in 2006, 11 joined the program the following year.

This year, 46 states have at least one farmers' market accepting EBT transactions.

Last year the Brattleboro Farmers' Market recorded $333 in food stamp sales.

Jean Hamilton, the food security and marketing coordinator at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, said the markets this year are off to a good start.

And while she said final numbers will not be available until after the season, the initial reports show that more farmers are receiving dollars they might not otherwise have received, while more low income customers are using the program to purchase fresh produce.

"Some of the markets are just getting their systems up and running, but we are seeing more and more traffic," Hamilton said. "The response has been great and it is exciting for the markets."

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, along with a number of other nonprofits and foundations in the state, helped raise money that the markets can use to get the program going.

The money is used to purchase equipment, pay staff to handle the increased work load and also cover some of the expenses that come along with accepting the electronic food stamp cards.

Hamilton said it is going to be a challenge for the markets to transition away from the grant money and find the funding in their annual budgets to keep the program alive.

Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market manager David Schoales said the board is committed to making sure EBT cards are accepted after the grant money runs out.

"There is no question about the value of this program," said Schoales. "It gets more money in the farmers' pockets and helps families get more fresh foods."

Grant money last year helped pay for someone to run the machine at the market and Schoales said a committee was formed to keep the program running.

He hopes to get a volunteer crew to make sure the system runs and the farmers get their money at the end of the day.

"It is getting a little busier every week as people are finding out about it," Schoales said about the relative health of the program. "Based on board conversations, there is a solid commitment to make this service available and keep doing it."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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