A fresh approach to public assistance (6/4/09)

Recipients can now buy from farmers’ markets

June 4, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Williston Farmers’ Market has joined a growing number of markets around the state that accept payments from people on public assistance.

The market opened for the season Saturday with the equipment needed to serve customers using electronic benefit cards. The cards years ago replaced food stamps.

Christina Mead, manager of the Williston market, said the program provided $4,000, covering the cost of installing a wireless card reader, service fees and administrative expenses. The readers can also be used for standard debit cards, but not credit cards.

“Now people on public assistance can shop at the farmers’ market,” Mead said. “They can buy healthy, locally grown food and know where it came from.”

The drive to equip farmers’ markets to accept the EBT and debit cards began three years ago. A bill directing the state to use at least $35,000 in federal stimulus money to fund the program was approved by the Vermont Legislature this year.

Gov. Jim Douglas signed the legislation during an appearance Saturday at the Williston Farmers’ Market.

“Our goal is to make nutritious, locally produced food available to more Vermonters,” he said in a media release.

Customers who use EBT cards have them swiped and in return receive wooden tokens. The tokens are then used to make purchases from individual vendors, ensuring benefits are used only for food items.

Some 73,000 Vermonters participate in 3SquaresVT, the program that replaced food stamps. Collectively, they spend $9 million a month for food.

Last year, markets around Vermont shared in just a small fraction of that revenue, recording $28,400 from people using the cards, according to Ames Robb, EBT program manager for the state Department of Children and Families.

But Robb noted that most markets only operate for part of the year and many markets that joined the program received equipment well into the season. She expected sales to rise in coming years.

The program has gradually added a handful of markets each year, Robb said. The slow rollout is by design, with each market receiving enough funding to ensure they accept EBT and debit cards for three years. The hope is that markets will continue the program after the subsidy runs out.

There are 78 farmers’ markets in Vermont, said Jean Hamilton, direct marketing program coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. Sixteen of them now accept EBT cards.

Without government funding, Hamilton said the program would be too costly and logistically challenging for many markets, which sometimes have limited access to electric power and no way to connect to the EBT system.

Hamilton said the program “brings quite an extraordinary benefit” to markets by opening them to a new group of potential customers. Every dollar spent by public assistance recipients generates up to $1.84 in economic activity, according to the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

The program also helps people on public assistance, Hamilton said, allowing them to purchase products from local farmers instead of fast food or grocery store produce that is sometimes grown far away.

There is also a social benefit for public assistance recipients who frequent farmers’ markets, she said. The program brings them together with others in the community, minimizing the sense of isolation sometimes felt by those who are struggling economically.

Business was good at the opening session of the Williston Farmers’ Market, Mead said on Monday. She tallied several sales from people using debit cards but none yet from EBT cards.

Mead hopes that publicity about the program will attract people who receive public assistance in the future. While acknowledging the program could boost sales, she said it would also help a segment of the population to eat better.

“For people who have lost jobs who are eligible, or for families trying to feed their families, I think it’s great,” she said. “If they get healthy, fresh, locally grown food, I think it’s even better.”