Monday, July 20, 2009

Technology increases use of food stamps in farmers markets

Access to healthy food for the poor in the U.S. has been made a little easier. Instead of the paper coupons, food stamps are now issued as debit cards, and card terminals have been provided to some farmers markets. Not only has food stamp use increased, but markets with the terminals have also seen more purchases by regular credit and debit cards.

From the New York Times, writer Katie Zezima reports on the changes.

The use of food stamps at farmers’ markets has been authorized for some time. But the program has been limited because the federal government in 2004 replaced the traditional paper food stamp coupons with debit cards that were processed through electronic benefit transfer terminals. The system is expensive, costing about $1,100 for each terminal, plus monthly fees; furthermore, the majority of farmers’ markets operate outdoors, with no means to accept the debit card.

“There’s a large expense associated with putting a terminal in each farmer’s hand,” said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Farmers’ Markets.

Over the past five years, though, states and the federal government, with help from nonprofit organizations, have made hundreds of thousands of terminals available at farmers’ markets. Two years ago, Montana started a program to introduce terminals at 42 farmers’ markets; in Iowa, the state gives wireless machines to farmers and pays all monthly fees associated with them. New Jersey started giving the machines to farmers this month.

“It opens up the market to a whole new clientele, and it allows the recipients better access to better foods and fresh foods,” said Jane Aiudi, director of the market and production development division of the Maine Agriculture Department.

As of the end of the 2008 fiscal year, 753 farmers’ markets nationwide had accepted food stamp benefits, a 34 percent increase over the previous year, according to the federal Agriculture Department. Sales to customers using food stamps at the markets totaled $2.7 million in the 2008 fiscal year, the most recent period for which records are available.

Those who advocate expanding the program say that doing so is crucial to encouraging the purchase of healthy food.

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