Some NC farmers markets struggle to accept food stamps

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 10, 2014 

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— Consumers can use food stamps to buy produce at grocery stores, but the freshest local fruits and vegetables for sale at farmers markets are often not available to them.

Many local markets would love to sell to those shoppers but find they don’t have the manpower or money to be able to accept food stamps.

In Wake County, five small markets with grant funding and government or other financial support already accept or will soon be accepting food stamps; a few farmers at the state-run market off Lake Wheeler Road near downtown Raleigh accept them, too. Without such support, other markets have found the process daunting.

“Unfortunately, they make it prohibitive,” said Crystal White, manager of the Clayton Farm and Community Market, which meets Saturday mornings in downtown Clayton.

State lawmakers are studying the issue of food access at farmers markets as part of their broader look at food deserts. A food desert is an area where residents in an urban area live more than a mile away from a grocery store, which can be a challenge for those who rely on public transportation. In rural areas, a food desert means living 10 miles from a grocery store. The legislative committee plans to release recommendations April 21 on how to help these communities.

‘Logistical challenge’

Earlier this year, the committee heard from Charlie Jackson, executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which produced a 2012 report on how to increase fresh food access to low-income communities. About getting more markets to accept food stamps, Jackson said in an interview: “It’s a real logistical challenge if the market doesn’t have a paid manager. It makes it tough to do that.”

At markets that accept food stamps, now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, shoppers typically go to a table at the market to swipe their electronic benefits card and receive $1 tokens in exchange. They give those tokens to the farmers to pay for their purchases. The market manager reimburses the farmer for the amount of tokens redeemed. To make this work, a market has to have enough manpower to staff the machine, handle the tokens and process reimbursements.

The machine and tokens can cost up to $1,300.

“It’s not a ton of money, but when the organization operates on a pretty small budget, it seems like a huge portion,” said Erin Kauffman, market manager at the Durham Farmers’ Market, which will start accepting food stamps this year after wrestling with how to do it for about eight years.

The Durham market finally made it work financially by installing an ATM and directing the market’s portion of the fees to support its food stamp program. That’s an approach that was first used by the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

White, Clayton’s market manager, took an online class to learn how a market could accept food stamps. She was left wondering if her market could afford the machine, let alone find a reliable Internet connection to run it, and was unclear about how much the transactions would cost. Plus, there is the time it takes to document the transactions and reimburse the farmers.

“It was exhausting trying to figure it out,” White said.

Help on the way

But there is potential help on the way: the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set aside $4 million to help markets purchase wireless machines and support services for one year.

Other markets across the state have had more success with accepting food stamps, including markets in Wendell, Fuquay-Varina, downtown Raleigh and western Cary. The Wendell and Fuquay-Varina farmers markets were able to accept food stamps as part of a $60,000 grant secured by Wake County officials and the nonprofit Advocates for Health in Action. Over two years, the grant will help pay the market managers and buy equipment, wireless Internet access, advertising and tokens.

Joseph Fasy, manager of The Growers Market of Fuquay-Varina, said his market is perfectly situated to sell fresh food to low-income families with an 800-unit affordable housing complex within a mile from the market, where Fasy and Wake County public-health educator Kristen McHugh went door to door to spread the word. Fasy said the market bought a machine that could handle food stamp transactions as well as debit and credit cards. Last year, it took in $9,800 using that machine, including $1,500 in food stamps.

The best part, Fasy said, was seeing some of those families making a habit of coming to the market.

“I would see some families coming back but using their cash,” he said.

Jackson of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project says about $100,000 worth of food stamp benefits were redeemed at farmers markets across the state last year; that includes $15,000 at the Asheville City Market, which is run by manager Mike McCreerywho works for Jackson’s group. Jackson is working with the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International to secure grant funding to provide help to markets wanting to accept food stamps.

Referring to the $100,000 in food stamps redeemed at farmers markets last year, Jackson said, “We think we can double or triple that amount with training and technical assistance.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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