Mary Kate Cardin was able to take home an extra helping of fresh fruits and vegetables recently from the farmer’s market.
The 27-year-old’s part-time job isn’t enough to make ends meet, so she relies on federal food benefits to buy groceries. She also sets a little aside for a friend, who she said has been waiting for food help for months.
She learned about the market’s Double Bucks program from the newspaper, she said. The program at several area farmer’s markets gives customers extra money to spend on purchases for every visit.
“I’m actually spending my extra money to buy food (to plant in community) gardens around the city, so people have a place to go if there’s a backlog in the system,” Cardin said. “I had a serious brain injury, and I was running out of money. If there was a community garden and I knew where it was, I could walk there and wouldn’t have to starve to death.”
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The Carrboro market program, which began in 2010, matches up to $5 each time eligible customers – EBT (SNAP) and WIC recipients and seniors – customers swipe their cards at the market table. Money is deducted from the card, and the customer gets wooden tokens worth a dollar each to use at participating stalls.
Durham’s downtown market, where Cardin shops, and the Southern Durham Farmers Market on N.C. 55 started accepting the federal SNAP or EBT food benefit cards in April. The new Double Bucks program, which started July 19, matches up to $10.
Farmers save the tokens, get a receipt at the end of the day and turn them in twice a month to get paid, market manager Erin Kauffman said. The farmers at Carrboro’s market get paid once a month.
Kelly Warnock, a registered dietician with the Durham County Department of Public Health, said the EBT program gives low-income families access to fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, which are healthier than food that takes weeks to cross the country. It also breaks down social barriers and connects farmers to new customers, putting more money in the local economy, she said.
The Durham Area Transit Authority has provided a customer shuttle from the downtown bus station to the market this summer. That service runs through Saturday.
“I think it’s just a way to tell people they’re welcome,” Warnock said. “If they go (to the market), it’s not that much more expensive than the grocery store.”
Kauffman said they will offer the program as long as there is money to support it. The market also is looking for grants and business sponsors, she said. The food truck vendors who park at the market every week and The Cookery, a culinary incubator, already help, she said.
The market’s fiscal partner is the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International in Pittsboro. RAFI’s nonprofit status means donations to the Double Bucks program are tax-deductible and the market can apply for more grants, Kauffman said.
RAFI’s executive director Scott Marlow said they are building relationships with multiple N.C. farmer’s markets. The biggest hurdle is getting the technology in place so farmers can accept EBT card payments, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has prioritized access to farmer’s markets, setting aside $4 million this year to help markets buy wireless machines and pay for one year of support services. The USDA reports that more than 2,800 farmer’s markets nationwide accept EBT cards, along with senior assistance and Women, Infants and Children program vouchers.
Several dozen are in North Carolina, including the Carrboro, Hillsborough, Raleigh and Cary markets, reports show. Roughly 1.5 million North Carolina residents got federal SNAP benefits in May. The state reports its farmer’s markets collected about $100,000 in food benefit money last year.
“The program has been shown around the country to create new habits and bring new folks in,” Marlow said. “Even after the programs end, those habits continue.”
Thomas Hurtgen, who runs Hurtgen Meadows farm in Hillsborough, and other farmers said they’re glad to help.
“I participate in those things because part of the mission of my farm is to contribute to society,” Hurtgen said. “This is another part of it, getting good food into people’s hands.”