- Author: Penny Leff
Don't take any wooden nickels? When the new Oak Park Farmers' Market in Sacramento opened last month, organizers made sure to have wooden tokens ready for opening day. Farmers' selling at farmers' markets and flea markets all over California will gladly accept wooden nickels, plastic tokens, or paper "market dollars" this summer in exchange for good food.
The Stockton Farmers Market under the crosstown freeway is wide awake at 7 every Saturday morning all year round, crowded with farmers and shoppers conducting a brisk business in fresh local fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, tofu, flowers and lots more, often talking four or five different languages but managing just fine to communicate with each other. Every Saturday, thousands of dollars of sales are transacted using bright green plastic tokens. The tokens are part of a program by farmers' markets throughout California to ensure that the markets are accessible to all Californians.
Paper food stamps haven't existed in California since 2004, but many people still use the old name, food stamp program, when they talk about what is now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As a result of high unemployment and hard times, one in eight Americans receives SNAP benefits to purchase food. SNAP benefits are now issued electronically, and SNAP recipients shop using electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards.
Farmers market vendors usually don't have the electricity, phone lines and authorization from the USDA needed to accept EBT cards as payment, so farmers market managers need to set up scrip systems for customers to use the cards. A market staff person swipes the card using a state-issued wireless terminal and sells the customer tokens to shop with. At the end of the market day, market vendors exchange any tokens received that day for cash from the market staff.
This year, help is available to market managers and associations implementing and promoting EBT access at their markets and welcoming SNAP customers:
- First, markets need to apply to be a SNAP retailer
- The California Department of Social Services will provide a free wireless terminal to any California market authorized by USDA to operate an EBT/scrip system. Contact Dianne Padilla-Bates, (916) 654-1396, firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Ecology Center Farmers' Market EBT Project, partially funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, will help market managers and associations with free consultation, free tokens, with setting up staffing, accounting, vendor training and with building community partnerships and designing custom posters and flyers to promote the markets to SNAP customers.
- To encourage more markets to open their stalls to SNAP customers, the USDA has just released its own How-to Handbook for accepting EBT at farmers' markets