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Eat Near: Double-your-SNAP program coming to two local farmers' markets

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Kim Dart points out a fresh fruit tray to her daughter, Amanda Dart, at the Sarasota Farmer's Market, circa 2007 / E. SKYLAR LITHERLAND

The Fresh Access Bucks program sure sounds like a win-win. It allows recipients of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars to double the value of their benefits by purchasing Florida-grown organic produce at local farmers' markets. Win one: for the low-income individuals who rely on SNAP to feed their families. Win two: for farmers who suddenly gain access to a whole new customer base. And it's coming soon to Sarasota County, with at least two local farmers' markets working to set up the infrastructure needed to participate.

Florida Organic Growers first launched the program in January 2013 after the nonprofit won a grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and it's already spread from Miami-Dade to Duval to Alachua and Pinellas and more. It works like this: If you're a SNAP recipient, just swipe your EBT card at a farmers' market machine. In return, you'll receive tokens that can be redeemed just like cash at participating market vendors. And if you're buying Florida-grown organic produce, you can double your money and get, say, $40 worth of fruits and vegetables with just $20 from your card.

Fresh Access Bucks have proven enormously popular, says Florida Organic Growers Community Food Project Coordinator Carmen Franz. In 2013, the program brought 1,247 new shoppers to participating markets, generating almost $69,000 in revenue for Florida farmers. Nationally, the number of SNAP recipients participating in similar programs jumped from 20,000 in 2010 to 40,000 in 2012.

While the original goal of the Florida grant was to have 20 participating markets online by the end of 2014, Franz says that goal is well within sight, and will likely be surpassed, with at least two Sarasota County markets joining the fold. Managers with the dormant North Sarasota market, which will be rebooted (tentatively) on Sat., May 3, are being trained on the program soon, and the Englewood Farmer's Market will be ready to accept EBT cards in about a month.

"It's a terrific incentive program," says Lee Perron, who manages the Englewood market. They're working on getting their EBT terminal up and running after beginning the application process with the USDA six months ago. Perron expects the reaction from vendors at the market will be "ecstatic" — ditto for SNAP recipients. "You're not going to have better access to nutritious products," he says.

One misconception about SNAP recipients is that they're all unemployed, Franz says. In fact, the large majority are "people who are working that are making ends meet that need a little bit of assistance."

"If you work full-time at minimum wage, you're below the poverty line," she points out. In 2011, almost 44,000 Sarasota County residents received more than $66 million in SNAP benefits.

Not all markets are crazy about the program. The extra manpower involved can sometimes be too much for maxed-out market managers, and some simply don't want a SNAP-reliant clientele, Franz says. "There's a lot of discrimination against people who get SNAP."

But according to Franz, both the Venice Farmer's Market and the Old Miakka Farmers Market have also expressed interest in Fresh Access Bucks. Franz says she'd love to involve the downtown Sarasota Farmer's Market, which is directly adjacent to a central bus terminal, perfect for those who rely on public transportation. Phil Pagano, the executive director of the Sarasota market, says his organization has toyed with the idea of setting up an EBT system for years, but would need additional staff to handle the work. He says he's open to considering signing up with Fresh Access Bucks if his board supports it.

While market managers can sometimes be reluctant to join in, Franz says, the vendors themselves generally want to participate. "They're excited about having new customers," she says. "It makes them more balanced and includes the entire community."

This is the 45th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: March 31, 2014
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