Food Stamps at the Farmers' Market

kummer june16 food stamps post.jpg

Photo by Chas Redmond/Flickr CC

A recent item in the Boston Globe gave me hope not just for my home city but others around the country whose residents live in "food deserts"--urban areas served only by convenience stores, where fresh produce is almost impossible to come by.

Farmers' markets in cities are very nice, but often in well-off areas, not poor ones. And when they are in poor areas--and pretty much any city or state farmers' market association will work hard to site them there--one simple but crucial piece of machinery has kept people from buying the fresh food they want: a battery-powered wireless card reader that allows food-stamp recipients to use their "electronic benefit transfer" food-stamp cards to buy fruits and vegetables.

When I reported an op-ed piece during the run-up to the last Farm Bill, only Iowa had taken a comprehensive approach to supplying the devices to markets across the state, and Boston had none. That was because the state of Iowa had decided to fund them, and was up to states and cities to pay for the card readers. It still is, and now more states and cities are doing it.

Here's the passage from the Globe piece that caught my eye:

To accommodate low-income neighborhood residents, many of the farmers now take food stamps, as well as senior vouchers and vouchers from the Women, Infants and Children program, thanks to the city's donation of electronic bank transfer machines that allow shoppers to swipe their food stamp debit cards at the market.

Judith Kurland, chief of staff to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the mayor has long pressed for healthy alternatives and has pushed to have more supermarkets and smaller grocers move into the neighborhoods.

By coincidence, our crack Food Channel producer Eleanor Barkhorn had been doing a bit of research on her own about which states had found ways to let food-stamp, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients, shop at farmers' markets, based on her experiences teaching in Mississippi:

After I saw the "food" my students (the vast majority of whom received some sort of federal food assistance) ate, it was impossible not to have an interest in finding out how they could have access to fresh vegetables, fruits, etc., instead of the Flaming Hot Cheetos and other processed foods that made up so much of their diets.

Unfortunately, the Delta grows very little real food--most of its farmland is dedicated to cotton and industrial corn and soybeans for animal feed--so even if MS did have a state-funded system to equip farmers' markets with EBT machines, it wouldn't help much for people who live in the region.

One good step at a time. Real food grown on sanely scaled farms owned by sanely financed families and farmers in the bye and bye. Wireless card readers in food-desert farmers' markets now. Rest of her findings from the USDA website below.