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Published: Friday, 5/11/2012

Farmers markets get U.S. aid to accept food-benefit cards


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.

The United States has a total of about 7,100 farmers markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; about 1,500 of them accept food stamps under the federal program, the official name of which is SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The $4 million could boost that number by about 4,000 markets, Kathleen Merrigan. deputy secretary of agriculture, said.

More than 50 markets in Ohio 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 food-aid cards and the perception that such markets are only for wealthy shoppers, Ms. Merrigan said.

In 2006, the Toledo Farmers' Market introduced a way for shoppers to use electronic food stamps at the market.

The pilot program was hailed as a first in the state and a way to give low-income shoppers access to fresh and inexpensive local produce.

The amount of money that 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.

That includes additional incentive funds to encourage low-income shoppers.

The market offers a program to food-stamp consumers called "double-up bucks" that doubles 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 estimated 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 Agriculture Department's 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 devices that markets can use to scan food stamp cards.

A list of Ohio farmers markets that participate in SNAP is available at: jfs.ohio.gov/ofam/pdf/2011FM- ContactList1.pdf.

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