Sunday, May 1, 2011

Food Stamps & Farmers Markets

You would have to be living under a rock to not be aware of the growing popularity of the “buy local” phenomenon when it comes to healthy foods. Farmers markets are becoming increasingly trendy because they provide incredibly fresh and affordable food while also supporting local growers. While the opportunity to support local agriculture should be available to all, access for low-income populations became restricted following the government’s transition in 2004 from paper food stamps to EBT (electronic benefits transfer) debit cards.[1] At $1,000 each, EBT terminals are expensive and often not practical for farmers markets to operate.1 The lack of terminals effectively requires EBT users to buy their produce at traditional grocers.

This problem not only restricts access to healthy food by buyers, but also significantly limits potential sales for local growers. Food stamp usage is at an all time high with more than 478,000 Minnesotans using the program in January of 2011.[2] The program is also seeing rapid increases in use; the “percent change in monthly food stamp participation in January 2010-2011” in Minnesota was 18.7%, ranking the 9th highest percent change among states.[3]

Fortunately, the issue of lack of EBT access at farmers markets seems to be gaining recognition. With the help of grants, state and local government, and non-profit organizations, EBT terminals have made it into the hands of market vendors in Montana, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maine, and Minnesota, among others. In fact, the 2012 budget proposed by President Obama “includes $4 million for the purchase of card readers for farmers markets.”4

Minnesota will see a boost in farmers market food stamp acceptance this year to a total of 13 of the 130 markets in the state.[4] An interesting concept being implemented in Bloomington is the use of tokens. The market can be set up with one card reader (which can accept both EBT and traditional credit cards) and users will be issued tokens worth $1 and $5. These tokens can then be used at the individual vendor booths as payment, with vendors trading their tokens for cash with the city.4

The new West Broadway Farmers Market will begin operation on June 5, 2011 on Saturdays from 8am – 1pm and Wednesdays from 3pm – 7pm. The market, located at 2101 West Broadway Ave N in Minneapolis between the new 5-Points building on Penn and the Capri Theater, is centered in a traditionally lower-income neighborhood where use of the food stamp program is high. According to Market Manager Alicia Uzarek, EBT will be incorporated into this new market. This feature will serve to increasing access to fresh and affordable produce to a large population of deserving people.

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