Farmers markets in Spokane create incentive for people to eat locally

SATURDAY, SEPT. 22, 2012

Reports say finding healthy food for low-income families is difficult

Local farmers markets are encouraging people who receive money from federal food assistance programs to spend their dollars on healthy, local foods.

Most Spokane-area farmers markets have accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – formerly known as food stamps – for years. But through the end of this growing season, three markets are offering match dollars as an incentive for people to use their SNAP money at the markets.

The Spokane, Perry and West Central markets are participating in the pilot program, which offers an additional $2 for every $5 of SNAP dollars spent, up to an additional $6 per day.

Program coordinator Brian Estes said an anonymous $10,000 donation, administered through Catholic Charities of Spokane, is backing the match dollars.

“We’ve got a growing patronage that we want to be able to make sure that the market is as useful to them as possible,” Estes said. “But we also want to capture the people who maybe have said, ‘I would love to shop at the farmers market, but it’s a little too expensive for me.’ ”

Those who receive benefits can bring their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to the market, where they are swiped in exchange for tokens that can be used at each booth.

Diane Reuter, market manager for the Spokane Farmers’ Market at 20 W. Fifth St., said last year the market had about $9,500 in sales through the SNAP/EBT program.

“It’s brought in a few new customers to us,” Reuter said.

The market invested $975 in a machine to process the SNAP/EBT cards, she said, but the machine also allows for the swiping of debit and credit cards, and the market’s previous machine needed to be replaced anyway.

Vendors absorbed some of that cost, but “it was a good investment because we didn’t want to turn away our EBT/SNAP customers,” Reuter said.

Vendor Rachael Howard, of Bouzies Bakery, said the food assistance program is a “symbiotic” relationship for the vendors and the customers.

“If we continue to be accepting of these different methods of payment, it will continue to help grow our business,” Howard said.

Another benefit, she said, is the sense of community built by the local food industry.

Estes said prices are comparable to grocery stores. The farmers markets can be intimidating for those who don’t know much about cooking from scratch, he said, but there’s never a shortage of people willing to help.

“You’re going to get the highest-quality stuff,” Estes said. “You’re going to get somebody who you can say, ‘What is this and what do I do with it?’ and they’re going to be able and willing to give you the time and attention to say, ‘This is how I cook it.’ ”

Estes said the charity will examine the data from the pilot program to see if the incentive is successful in encouraging people to spend their SNAP dollars on healthier foods and whether the program should continue.

“We’re really interested in seeing how food as a resource makes a difference in the lives of individuals and households and the quality of life in the Northwest,” he said. “We think that people have the right and should have the opportunity to have access to really, really good food.”

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