The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making available $4 million nationwide — $161,359 in Ohio — to expand the number of farmers markets that accept food stamp benefits.
There are about 7,100 farmers markets in the US, according to the USDA; about 1,500 of these currently accept food stamps under the federal program, whose official name is SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The $4 million could boost that number by about 4,000 additional markets, said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, speaking on a conference call earlier today.
More than 50 markets in Ohio already accept the assistance, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Among the obstacles markets face: the cost of installing and maintaining a machine that accepts the electronic benefit food stamp cards and the perception that such markets are only for wealthy shoppers, said Ms. Merrigan.
In 2006, the Toledo Farmers’ Market introduced a way to allow shoppers to use their food stamps at the market. It was the first farmers market in Ohio to allow food stamps in electronic form after paper stamps had been discontinued years earlier. The pilot program was hailed as a first and a way to give low-income shoppers access to fresh and inexpensive local produce.
The amount of money food stamp shoppers have spent at the Toledo Farmers Market has climbed steadily from about $1,500 in 2007 to more than $50,000 in 2011, including additional incentive funds to encourage low-income shoppers. The market offers a program to food stamp consumers called “double-up bucks” that double shoppers’ purchasing power up to $20 per market visit for local produce. The program has been very successful, said Dan Madigan, the market’s executive director. He estimates it brought in about 1,000 new food stamp customers last year; it kicks off for this year in June.
In 2011, an average of 1.7 million people in Ohio received food assistance monthly.
Of the 265 Ohio farmers markets that the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has registered, 209 of them are not SNAP-authorized.
“We’re looking to expand [the program] everywhere” to include both urban and rural areas said Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the state Department of Job and Family Services. He said the state would like to use the available funds to purchase wireless point-of-sale devices markets can use to scan food stamp cards.
A list of Ohio farmers markets that already participate in SNAP is available at: http://jfs.ohio.gov/ofam/pdf/2011FMContactList1.pdf.
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