Farmers’ markets have not traditionally been a go-to source of food for those enrolled in nutrition assistance programs. But with a new grant to help states bring wireless technology to these venues, the Obama administration hopes to make it possible for more farmers to redeem food vouchers from customers.
The $4 million in funding was announced Wednesday by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, who said the money will help beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly the food stamp program – gain access to the nation’s 7,100 operating farmers’ markets. Only 1,500 of these operations are currently set up to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) – the system through which SNAP benefits are redeemed.
“SNAP participation at farmers’ markets helps provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families and expands the customer base for local farmers – a win-win for agriculture and local communities,” said Merrigan.
Implementing an EBT system is costly, she explained. It includes the machine, transaction costs, and people needed to run it.
“Four million dollars in the scheme of things is not huge amount of money, noted Merrigan, but in this case “it can do huge things.”
For people who don’t live near a supermarket, or whose local grocery store isn’t open 7 days a week, the farmers’ market provides an alternative source of fresh food, said the deputy secretary.
Merrigan also made an effort to debunk what she called myths about farmers’ markets and fresh produce.
Contrary to popular belief, farmers’ markets are not just a shopping place for the well-to-do, she said.
“We see farmers’ markets all over the country. They don’t only crop up in high income areas.”
She also pointed out that fruits and vegetables are not out-of-reach for those on a tight budget.
“We’ve been working very hard at USDA to bust this idea that fruits and vegetables are too expensive. Our own analysis by the economic research service shows that that’s not the case. Certain fruits and vegetables that contribute to good nutrition you can get for as little as 22 cents per cup.”
The grant is intended not only to provide greater access to fresh, local foods but to inspire a lasting interest in healthier foods among kids, she explained.
“Children are willing to try fruits and vegetables that mom and dad have a hard time selling at home on the plate because of the whole atmosphere and excitement and all kinds of innovative efforts that people make to vend at farmers’ markets.”
The funds are being provided according to the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012. They are being distributed by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which announced that it will soon post a notice in the Federal Register soliciting advice on how to spend these funds in the future.