Low-income residents who shop at the local farmers market can stretch their dollars through a money match program.
The Growers Market of Fuquay-Varina offers up to $5 to shoppers who use their electronic benefit cards, which have replaced food stamps.
“Some people learn that this is a great way to stretch their benefit,” said market manager Joe Fasy. “We’ve had a family of five come with $25; they get $30 to spend and walk out with six bags of produce.”
The match program, now in its second year, is paid for through a grant from Wake County Human Services. It has proven so successful at the Growers Market that the county increased its annual allocation from $500 to $750, Fasy said.
In its first year, the program ran out of money to give customers within four months, he said.
About 350 homes are designated as low-income housing within two miles of the farmers market, according to Advocates for Health in Action.
Last season, 120 customers using electronic benefit cards spent $1,461 at the market. Credit-card users spent about $2,784, and debit-card users spent about $3,450.
Customers who use credit or debit cards to pay for their purchases also benefit from the program. They swipe their card through a reader and decide how much they want to spend, and then they receive wooden coins in $1 denominations. Those who use electronic benefits receive an additional five coins.
The coin system means vendors can’t distinguish between credit-card users and those who get state aid.
The market kept track of all card purchases as part of a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which helped pay for the card readers. This is the final year for the grant.
The Growers Market plans to become a nonprofit to seek more funding. The market currently operates under the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association.
Some say the program has helped bring more diversity to the market.
Two years ago, about 50 percent of the market’s visitors were white. Now Fasy says he sees more Latinos and African-Americans shopping at the market.
Fasy uses the market to demonstrate healthy cooking. For example, instead of using heaps of butter in his sweet potatoes, he mixes in lime cilantro. The unusual combination helps show shoppers what they can do with the ingredients they find at the market.
“The most important of this is we’re drawing people who wouldn’t normally come to farmers markets – either because they don’t know about us or they don’t realize the prices at farmers markets are pretty good,” Fasy said.
Renee Guidry was a first-time shopper at the market, which operates on Wednesday and Saturdays at Centennial Square. She said she was was influenced by Fasy’s cooking demonstration.
Bright greens, reds and yellows filled Fasy’s pan. The vegetable stir fry of organic napa cabbage, Russian red kale, broccoli and ginger, garlic and soy sauce made Guidry cringe at first. She usually shies away from vegetables because of their texture.
“I’m impressed,” she said. “I’m really surprised. I don’t like anything green. I liked this because it had different flavors but the texture was good. I may not go home and cook it today, but if it’s in my food I wouldn’t turn it away.”