With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Boise's Saturday, Thursday and Tuesday farmers markets will accept food stamps next spring, part of a growing trend at markets across the country.
"The benefit is that we will be able to attract more people who need the fresh food," said Karen Ellis, Capital City Public Market executive director. "A lot of the misconception about farmers markets is they are more expensive."
The market was awarded a two-year start-up grant, to be finalized this week, to purchase the equipment and train vendors in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP is still called food stamps in Idaho, though the 2008 farm bill did away with the term last year and many states have followed suit in an effort to banish the stigmas associated with food stamps.
At least two market vendors have applied for a SNAP license, but only Global Gardens, a program coordinated by the Idaho Office for Refugees, has been authorized.
For the past two weeks, Global Gardens has accepted food stamps for fresh, local vegetables, and while participation has been slow at market, refugee agriculture coordinator Katie Painter said they have had more success with their mobile food stand, which serves refugee families during the week.
While Global Gardens has to call in each food stamp purchase, next year, the market will have an Electronic Benefits Transfer reader and customers can scan their Idaho Quest Card--a food stamp debit card--and get tokens to use at farm stands. Regular bank debit cards will also be accommodated next year.
Fresh vegetables and fruits, honey, meat and even plants that produce food are eligible for food stamp purchases.
Moscow is the first city in Idaho to accept food stamps at its farmers market, though Grangeville, Sandpoint and Lewiston are interested, said Amy Grey, director of Backyard Harvest and coordinator of Shop the Market in Moscow.
"The vendors are eager to work with folks who are struggling right now," said Grey, who runs the food stamp program at Moscow's Saturday and Tuesday markets.
The farmers often throw in a little extra produce for food stamp--or what they term Market Money--customers.
At the end of the 2008 season, 753 farmers markets across the country were authorized to accept SNAP benefits, a 34 percent increase from fiscal year 2007. While the percentage of redemptions is very little--about 15 families use the program each week in Moscow, dropping off later in the month as benefits are used up--the amount of money going to small farmers has increased from about $1 million in 2007 to $2.7 million in 2008.
Josie Erskine of Peaceful Belly also applied for a SNAP authorization but it has been slow to be processed. Erskine is on the board of the Capital City Public Market and sells organic vegetables,
"Healthy food and vegetables need to be subsidized just like junk food is," Erskine said. "It's unfair that McDonald's food has a subsidy and healthy salad doesn't."
Idaho has seen one of the highest increases in food stamp participation during the most recent recession--a 38 percent jump in the past year, said Kathy Gardner, director of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force. Gardner said farmers markets are realizing the economic benefits of accepting food stamps and finding a new customer base, but also realizing that providing healthy food to low income people is the right thing to do.
"It's new business for them to see this as hunger relief," she said.
The market applied for the $45,000 grant in April and just received word this month that it was successful. The money will pay for equipment, training and a staff person to run the booth so that low-income families can be integrated into the market.
"If we're not able to serve them, we become an elitist market and we're not doing our job," Ellis said.