Summer farmers markets increase consumer base by exchanging credit, debit, EBT card funds for tokens
In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 10, 2020 Fred Wheeler of Hill, N.H. sets up his stand at the Franklin Farmers Market in Franklin, N.H The Northeast has seen good weather for an early harvest of crops. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) AP Photo/Jim Cole)
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** Alia Ghabra, left, of Oakland, Calif., holds a handful of wooden tokens to spend that she'd gotten in exchange for food stamps at a farmers' market in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008. The cost of eating "slow food" can add up fast. But advocates of the movement, which means eating mostly fresh, unprocessed foods grown locally and in an environmentally responsible way, say going slow doesn't have to put a bite on your budget. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010 Paul Zydor of Maple Ridge Farm in Loudon, N.H. sets up bushels of fresh picked apples at the Farmers market in Concord, N.H. The Northeast has seen good weather for an early harvest of crops. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
In this photo taken Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010 shoppers go through fresh produce at the Farmers market in Concord, N.H. The Northeast has seen good weather for an early harvest of crops. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
A debit card reader and wooden tokens sit at the Winooski Farmers Market in Winooski, Vt., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007. To make fresh produce available to more people, three farmers markets will now accept electronic food stamps and debit cards. The wooden tokens will be used as payment for products. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
FILE - In this May 8, 2012, file photo, Kevin Concannon, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture, chats with vendor Helen Wise at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, N.C.. The federal government is spending $4 million to make such markets more accessible to food stamp recipients. Food stamps look ripe for the picking, politically speaking. Through five years and counting of economic distress, the food aid program has swollen up like a summer tomato. It grew to $78 billion last year, more than double its size when the recession began in late 2007. That makes it a juicy target for conservative Republicans seeking to trim spending and pare back government. But to many Democrats, food stamps are a major element of the countrys commitment to help citizens struggling to meet basic needs. (AP Photo/Allen Breed, File)
Though the locally grown selection is limited this early in the season, the Concord Farmers Market drew a crowd to Capitol Street on Saturday morning – and instead of paying in cash, many shoppers exchanged wooden tokens for products with a new program intended to make the market a more feasible option for credit, debit or EBT card users.
After using the winter farmers market at Cole Gardens as its testing ground, the Merrimack County Conservation District set up the system to accept funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. EBT cards transfer SNAP participants’ funds from a federal account to the retailer, and their money is exchanged at a tent in the market for tokens accepted at most vendors’ stands.
“We’re trying to level the playing field to help the agriculture producers in the area accept SNAP funds,” said Stacy Luke, district manager for the conservation district. “SNAP participants can buy local nutritious food from the farmers market, and with the token system it’s a lot easier.”
Christine St. Clair worked the exchange tent Saturday, and by 10 a.m. she said she’d seen quite a few credit/debit card users and one EBT customer.
“The farmers market is a community thing, and being able to shop here is being part of this community,” she said. “It’s kind of like a little Saturday ritual.”
SNAP participants can use tokens only to purchase food stamp-eligible foods at the market, including bread products, produce, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, seeds and plants that produce edible food. To receive SNAP funds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires households to meet certain tests, including resource and income levels. Some market foods are relatively more expensive than conventional store products, but St. Clair said the fresh products sometimes can be more economically practical.
“There are farmers who sell plants, herbs and seed starters, and those plants are available with the EBT because they produce food,” St. Clair said. “So SNAP users could start their own little garden, just a little plot, but you can grow from there all season.”
Luke said she hopes to see an increase in SNAP participants because the Steeplegate Mall and Capitol Street markets can be accessed by public transportation or by walking. The Cole Gardens winter location was difficult for people with SNAP to reach without cars, but the tokens were popular with credit/debit card users.
“For the credit/debit system, some of the vendors who couldn’t accept credit cards before benefited greatly,” said Charlie Cole, general manager of Cole Gardens. “They actually saw a huge uptick in sales.”
Larry Pletcher, a member of the Concord Farmers Market board of directors, owns the certified organic Vegetable Ranch in Warner. To him, the SNAP program at the summer market offers lower-income customers the ability to eat the healthiest foods.
“I think there are a lot of benefits to being organic from a health standpoint and an environmental standpoint, and we’re just hoping to give more people access to it,” he said.
Cindy and Ed Canane run Cascade Brook Farm in Sutton and sell meat products from their black Angus cattle at the summer and winter markets. Cindy Canane said she hopes the program helps “get good food to the mouths of people who need it,” and cooking education programs may help make locally grown food a more feasible option for SNAP users.
“It’s a personal decision of how to spend those food dollars. . . . It has to be on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Sometimes the fruits and vegetables in season just can’t compare to a supermarket version; they’re so much better. I think for many of the SNAP users, it’s worth it. I think people can learn how to budget their food dollars to incorporate the farmers market.”
St. Clair said many of the farmers enjoy building relationships with their customers and teaching them how to use the fresh food.
“If they’re selling something new, and you don’t know how to cook it, they’ll explain it – they’re great at that,” she said. “They want to educate you on what they’re growing and how it’s grown. It’s not just coming and getting your food and leaving; it’s a community thing.”
Luke said the token system in place at the Concord markets is modeled after systems in the Seacoast and Keene area markets.
These programs are “definitely on the upswing” in popularity right now, said Leo Smock-Randall, SNAP coordinator for Seacoast Eat Local. Three Seacoast markets have accepted SNAP funds for several years now, he said, and a fourth is getting off the ground.
“I think we’ve got a nice handle on how to run the program. The vendors are a little more aware of how it works and the value of it,” he said. “It’s definitely growing.”
Luke said the conservation district hopes to apply for a coupon program that may propel SNAP participants to buy market food and alleviate their cost burden by matching the money they spend at the market.
The Capitol Street market is open Saturdays through October, and the Steeplegate Mall market will open Thursdays from June 5 through September.
(Ann Marie Jakubowski can be reached at 369-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)