Farmers markets reach out to food stamp recipients
The luxuries of the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market - where shoppers peruse European-style breads and organic dog biscuits along with locally grown produce - are a stark contrast to the neighborhood, where Census officials have estimated 20 percent of families live beneath the poverty line.
But Kate Barney hopes to draw her lower-income neighbors to the market, and she’s giving them an incentive: Starting this month, the market will double the value of food stamp benefits used at the market, letting shoppers get twice the fresh fruits and vegetables.
The market is one of three sharing in a $10,000 grant to pilot the food stamp matching program in Atlanta and Savannah, thanks to a foundation sponsoring similar efforts in six other states.
The Wholesome Wave Foundation, based in Westport, Conn., plans future matching programs in Tifton and Macon here in Georgia. A separate, state-sponsored effort issuing low-income mothers and senior citizens vouchers to shop at farmers markets also is starting this month.
Wholesome Wave is developing similar programs at farmers markets in Florida, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Michigan.
The efforts aim to help the poorest families stretch their grocery budgets. With many families struggling to keep food on the table in a depressed economy, organizers expect a busy summer.
A few weeks into the market season, Barney has already seen nearly $300 in food stamp benefits spent at her booths in East Atlanta.
"Last season, all season, they only had $111," said Barney, who manages the market.
Typically shoppers at markets like hers swipe an electronic benefits transfer - or EBT - card through a credit card scanner to specify how much they want to spend at the market, and receive tokens they can use at individual stands.
Starting this month, the Atlanta and Savannah markets will use grant money to double the value, according to Alice Rolls, head of Georgia Organics, a nonprofit which works to bring locally grown food to Georgia families. The group is dividing $10,000 for the matching program at the East Atlanta market and Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms, also in the city; and at Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah.
Part of the goal, organizers say, is getting healthy fare to low-income families living in areas where high-fat food is affordable and abundant. Advocates for the poor have long argued that quality food is too often scarce and pricey in low-income communities.
"People are going to make choices where they can stretch those dollars as much as possible," Rolls said, later adding the program offers "incentives to get people to experience the farmers market."
Organizers also hope to prove that if given the means to choose better food, poor people will buy it, explained Michel Nischan, president of Wholesome Wave.
The original goal may have been to get healthy foods to the poor. But the effort takes on new importance as more families look to federal food benefits as a lifeline.
Participation in the federal food stamp program - recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP- stood at 33.1 million in March, up 5.2 million individuals from March 2008, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based group that tracks the numbers. In Georgia, the number of recipients in March 2009 - the most recent data available - showed a 26.2 percent increase compared to March 2008, according to the Center’s data.
Individuals and families qualify based on a sliding income scale. A family of four earning roughly $21,204 a year can qualify for up to $668 in benefits a month, for example.
A similar federal program offers needy women with children vouchers for items like cheese, milk, and eggs. Starting this month, the Women, Infants and Children program will also give low-income moms up to $30 in vouchers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets across the state, according to Doris Evans-Gates, who manages the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program in Georgia. A similar program aids needy seniors.
The program also authorizes farmers and community groups to set up markets at clinics, senior centers and other places across the state where needy moms and seniors pick up vouchers, she said.
Gates-Evans said the program is still authorizing farmers for this summer, but had 120 participating last year. The program runs through the fall.
"We expect that amount and more this year," she said.
Part of the reason, she said, is the increasing national focus on health.
But the number of people cashing in on the program could also spike this summer. Gates-Evans said officials are doing their part to help families make the most of their benefits: WIC recipients are offered special training on storing fruits and vegetables.
"That’s certainly helpful in the times - being able to store them, and make them stretch," she said.