Approval of Stamps

Two Omaha farmer’s markets now accepting food stamps

At the end of the film Food, Inc., white words flash onto and fade into a black screen. The words, simple but poignant and, in some ways, naïve, encourage communities to advocate for the use of Food Stamps, now called EBTs or SNAP benefits, at Farmer’s Markets. The concept is a good first step to providing avenues of access to fresh fruits and vegetables for those struggling with food security. As of 2010 only 1.5 percent of farmer’s markets in Nebraska accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, much lower than the still dismal national average of 7.5 percent. The problem with accepting SNAP benefits is that food stamps are no longer booklets of coupons. They are debit cards known as an Electronic Benefits Transfer, and expensive equipment is needed to process the payment. The cost of credit card or EBT machines is prohibitive for most individual farmers market vendors and market managers; but public and private efforts are underway to subsidize the $13,000 required to purchase the machines. The Omaha Farmers Market and the Aksarben Farmers Market will be among the first in the metro area to accept EBT and credit cards. “I’ve believed from the very beginning that the farmers market is a community resource. It’s something for the community, but you can’t be for the community if you are not for the whole community,” says Vic Gutman, operator of the two markets. Gutman had applied for federal grants but was turned down. That’s when a foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous, donated the money for the machine. He is following a strategy similar to other markets across the country — rather than requiring each vendor to have a machine, the market owns one machine and will issue tokens for credit card users and EBT users. Tokens will differ in color and dollar amount — most likely $1 or $2 tokens for EBT users because government rules prohibit cash back, and $5 tokens for credit card users, which can be exchanged for cash. Getting the tokens is as simple as walking up to the information booth and swiping your card for a certain amount. Hopefully, any stigma will be removed by having EBT and non-EBT users taking advantage of the token system. In addition to the no-cash-back rule, EBT users can only use tokens at certain vendors, mainly those selling whole, non-prepared foods. Last year the Nebraska Legislature amended the Value Added Producer Grant to include a line item for EBT scanners. Proponents saw the state support as a step toward reducing health disparities by creating another avenue for those struggling with food security to access healthy food. The Old Cheney Road Farmers’ Market in Lincoln is the only organization that applied for the grant with the intention to implement EBT scanners. The grant was awarded but it’s likely to be the only one under what will probably be a short-lived program. “I hate to say this, but the program is probably not going to survive the budget cuts,” said Linda Fettig, executive director of the Nebraska Rural Development Commission. But the grant has yet to be cut, and the deadline to submit an application is April 7. More than 71,000 people in Douglas and Sarpy counties received SNAP benefits in the month of February. Increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables is important in any population but is considered critical to a low-income population that consists mainly of children and seniors. “In Nebraska, we are not good. We do not get enough fruits and veggies in our diet. We are in the bottom 10 in the country, and for our low-income families it’s a primary concern. Our low-income areas don’t have the same access to high quality fruit and veggies to feed their families,” says Wanda Koszewski, director of Nutrition Education Program for Limited Resource Families at UNL. Increased access to fruits and vegetables leads to increased intake of fruits and vegetables, which leads to better health and lower healthcare costs. It’s naïve to think that solving issues of food security is a simple as implementing a scanning device at a farmers market. Access to fresh food goes beyond the farmers market and into issues of food education, transportation, childcare and social woes; but doing it in the streets of a neighborhood is a good place to start.

posted at 12:55 pm
on Monday, March 21st, 2011

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