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Farmers markets can help the poor improve their diets

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on May 24, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
May 24, 2012 5:22 pm

The federal government is spending $4 million to make farmers markets more accessible to food stamp recipients. (Allen Breed/The Associated Press)

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

With spring come the farmers markets and booths overflowing with fresh produce direct from local growers – often harvested that very morning.

For low-income folks who often don’t have easy access to supermarkets, farmers markets have the potential for being important sources of low-calorie, high-nutrient fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

In the South Sound, several farmers markets – including all four in Tacoma – make it easy for low-income shoppers to buy their produce. They accept such alternative forms of payment as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), as well as WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and senior vouchers.

Shoppers have funds deducted from their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) accounts and are given tokens in exchange. Those tokens are used at individual farmers’ booths to buy food items.
But apparently not many people are aware that their benefits are accepted at some farmers markets. The directors of the Proctor Farmers Market and the three Tacoma Farmers Markets locations say those payments make up a fairly small percentage of revenues.

“We’d like to see more people using them and see them eating healthy, nutritious foods,” says Proctor market manager L. Lisa Lawrence. And shoppers shouldn’t be intimidated by fresh produce. “All our vendors love to tell people how to prepare it,” she says.

Tacoma Farmers Markets executive director Janie Morris says her three markets are seeing small but rising numbers of EBT users. She’s especially optimistic that the South Tacoma market, which opens June 3 at the new STAR Center, will see an increase. “We’ve done a lot of outreach in that community,” which she characterizes as a “food desert” due to the scarcity of supermarkets.

Although EBT customers underutilize local farmers markets, at least they have the opportunity. Fewer than one-quarter of the nation’s approximately 7,100 farmers markets are equipped to handle the EBT system that more than 45 million Americans use to buy at least some of their food.

That’s why a $4 million federal program recently announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is such good news. The USDA hopes that grants to states will enable about 4,000 farmers markets to acquire wireless “point of sale” equipment used with the food program’s EBT cards.

Making it easier to use supplemental food benefits at farmers markets is a win-win – enabling farmers to sell more of their produce and helping low-income folks buy more healthful food. With diabetes and other conditions related to poor eating habits on the rise, anything that encourages people to replace some of their junk food with locally grown items is worth celebrating.

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