Through a program known as the Farmer’s Market Coalition, the Riverwalk Farmer’s Market, held each Saturday from spring until fall, is now accepting electronic benefit transfer (EBT) for purchases of fresh produce, meats and other conumables approved by the federal government. The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service provides free EBT equipment to eligible farmer’s markets in an effort to encourage healthy eating among EBT recipients.
“Delaware has 27 farmer’s markets,” said Walter Hepford, a volunteer with Downtown Milford, Inc., sponsor of the Riverwalk Farmer’s Market. “All have been encouraged to offer EBT as a way for folks on the program to get fresh, locally grown foods. During our first week, we only had two customers, but the program has grown since then. We are hoping that offering EBT will not only encourage those who receive benefits to eat healthier, but will also improve sales for the vendors at our markets.”
In order to use EBT at the Farmer’s Market in Milford, recipients of benefits visit the DMI table at the market in order to use the credit card machine that accepts EBT transactions. They are then given tokens that must be used for qualified food items only. Vendors will be provided information on what the tokens can be exchanged for in order to keep the market in compliance with federal guidelines.
According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website, farmer’s markets are a great source of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other healthy, locally grown foods. The program is designed to expand access to healthier foods for those who are receiving SNAP benefits. A report issued in 2010 regarding the need to connect SNAP benefits with farmer’s markets found that it was difficult for many farmer’s markets to purchase the equipment and manage SNAP requirements. In addition, many receiving benefits were unaware that farmer’s markets offer a wide range of healthier options such as fresh produce, meats and dairy products. In order to address this gap, the USDA created the Farmer’s Market Coalition.
Numerous studies have linked healthier foods to a reduction in many diseases that are common among low income families, including diabetes and heart disease. Farmer’s markets like the one held in Milford offer access to fresher foods than many grocery store chains, yet many underserved citizens are either unaware the markets exist or are unable to pay for the items with cash on a regular basis.
Transportation is another issue that low-income families face when it comes to choosing healthy options. Although there are many small, roadside stands throughout the area during the summer months, many low-income families do not have the transportation to travel to out-of-the-way stands. Many rely on rides to larger grocery stores to do their shopping. However, many low-income families in Milford have the ability to walk to downtown Milford on Saturday in order to visit the farmer’s market.
“I am unable to accept EBT at my store because I don’t have the volume necessary to do so,” said Kenny Blessing, owner of Mule Run Meats who has a booth at the Farmer’s Market as well. “Being able to accept EBT at the Farmer’s Market helps me get the good, wholesome foods we offer to people who may not have access to it otherwise. It gives people the opportunity to eat healthier. It benefits me as a vendor as the Farmer’s Market handles all the paperwork and all we do is take tokens. It benefits low income families who frequent the market because they can choose foods that are much healthier for them than the processed foods they may purchase otherwise.”
Healthy foods at grocery store chains are also more expensive than processed foods, leading many lower-income families to choose less healthy options as they are less expensive. Farmer’s markets often have lower priced produce than grocery stores. In addition, because they are grown locally, the foods have more benefits to those who live locally. There is research, for example, that local honey may have more health benefits than processed honey found in grocery stores. Because bees create honey from local pollen, eating local honey introduces a small amount of allergen in the body. This can help activate the immune system and help grow natural immunity.
The machines provided by the federal government for the EBT program also have credit or debit capabilities but Mr. Hepford said that Milford has chosen to only use it for the EBT program currently.
“We are hoping the addition of EBT cards at the farmer’s market will be beneficial to the health of citizens in Milford as well as to our vendors,“ Mr. Hepford said. “It is still new for us, but it seems to be helping us improve health in some of our customers as well as providing additional customers for our vendors.