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Bill Aims to Expand Food Stamp Use at Farmers Markets

Only some farmer’s markets in North Carolina have been accepting food stamps (or electronic benefits transfer, EBT). Now, a bill in the General Assembly would enable all of the state’s markets to accept the coupons.

By Kelsey Tsipis

It was Candi Jones’ first trip to the Carrboro Farmer’s Market Saturday morning. The expectant mother of two, and full time student, said once she learned farmers at the market accepted food stamps, she couldn’t resist the allure of fresh fruits and vegetables for her and her two sons.

“I grew up in Georgia right around the corner from a farmer’s market so you know I love fresh peaches,” said Jones, who now lives in Carrboro. “You can’t find better fruit at the grocery store. And it’s cheaper at the markets too.”

Jones was at the Carrboro market using her state-issued electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. She spent $20 on potatoes, peppers and a big basket of peaches.

Candi Jones, EBT farmers market customer

Candi Jones shops at the Carrboro Farmers Market with her son Antonio (right), husband William and son William Jr. Photo by Rose Hoban

A bipartisan bill moved last week to a health care subcommittee in the North Carolina House of Representatives that would make fresh, locally grown produce more easily available to low-income families like Jones’ by increasing the acceptance of EBT cards at farmers markets and food co-ops.

Out of North Carolina’s 188 farmers markets, 46 currently take advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP programs. These programs allow EBT, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and Seniors program users to easily access the fresh, local produce. The bill aims to provide more farmers markets across the state with the technology to accept food stamps (now in the form of debit cards) in order to combat obesity in low-income families.

That’s a big issue for bill sponsor Stephen LaRoque (R-Kinston), who said he’s concerned about the obesity problem, especially in children.

“I chaired the childhood obesity subcommittee and learned it’s costing us $160 million a year, and going up $10-20 million more every year,” LaRoque said. “What people don’t understand is this is a growing problem and it’s getting worse.”

Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill), LaRoque’s co-sponsor, said the bill would expand upon the state’s existing non-profit Leaflight program.

“I think there is a group of public health professionals who really want this program,” said Insko. “It expanded quickly and they think it could be done more quickly through the Department of Agriculture than through a non-profit.”

The Leaflight program was started in 2004 by Chapel Hill resident Robert Smith to outfit farmers markets with supplies, materials and operational capacity to support SNAP programs.

“We do a lot of hands on things, everything from contracts to technical assistance to incentive programs,” said Smith, who is Leaflight’s only full-time employee.

Smith said in the program’s eight years, it has outfitted 44 markets across 20 counties with the technological and financial know-how to sustain a SNAP program. Leaflight, which is funded mainly through donor support, focuses mainly on helping markets sustain the technology it takes to run the programs.

In May, North Carolina received $109,631 of a $4 million federal grant designed to expand the availability of ATM equipment in farmers’ markets so that EBT cards can be accepted.

The Carrboro Farmers Market uses the ATM’s service fee to pay for the tokens and additional employee support needed to run the program. Sarah Blacklin, the director of the market, said not only has the initiative brought EBT customers in to buy more produce, but has also significantly increased farmer’s revenue.

“For example, we’ve seen a 32 percent increase in usage during the month of January, which is usually a slower month for our farmers,” said Blacklin.

Blacklin said the average spending per EBT customer on their Wednesday and Saturday markets is about $25. EBT transactions total $16,041 since the Carrboro Market started accepting the payments in 2010.

The market recently partnered with UNC Health Care to start a Market Match program, which will match the amount of money up to $5 for EBT customers.

“And when you get food at the farmers markets you’re going to get healthier foods, you won’t get junk food,” said Insko.

Antonio Jones shops with his mom at the Carrboro Farmers Market

Jones’ son Antonio shows off some fresh produce from the farmers market. Photo by Rose Hoban

While the bill will most likely not move fast enough to be completed during this legislative session, Insko hopes the initiative gains momentum through the work of her co-sponsor Rep. LaRoque..

“He keeps saying we’ll pay for this now or we’ll pay for this later and he’s right,” said Insko. “I’m so glad to have him on board. I hope that more Republicans listen to him.”

As for Jones, she said after seeing how easy it was for her to use her EBT card at the market, and the quality of food she got, she’ll definitely be back for fresh vegetables and more of those peaches she loves.

“My oldest son keeps asking me when we’re going back,” said Jones. “He loved the experience and talking to the farmers about their vegetables.”

Front page photo by Kelsey Tsipis

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