An article in yesterday’s Times discussed efforts to expand the implementation of a paperless food stamp system in farmers markets around the country; while food stamps have been accepted at farmers markets for awhile now, the relatively high expense of operating the electronic transfer terminals (and the dearth of farmers who can accept debit cards) has curtailed the program’s reach.
New York’s Greenmarket program is also hoping to increase the number of farmers markets that accept EBT, says Sabine Hrechdakian, the Greenmarket’s special projects and publicity manager. “We have pretty much the the largest farmers market EBT program in the country,” she says. “We’ve provided EBT access since 2005. We had electronic EBT at five markets that year and now have it at 23 markets, with the goal of making all markets accessible eventually.” Right now, the EBT terminals are located at markets in communities “that disproportionately suffer from food-related illnesses — all of our markets in the Bronx, and some in Upper Manhattan and Queens, though this year we did expand to the Lower East Side and Tompkins Square markets.”
The way the system works, Hrechdakian explains, is that the EBT recipient goes to the terminal booth set up at the market, swipes the EBT card for the amount he or she wants to debit, and in exchange gets wooden tokens in increments of one and five dollars to use as cash throughout the market. Hrechdakian acknowledges that the terminals and their administrative upkeep are a costly affair. “What would be simpler,” she says, “is if each farmer had their own terminal, but they’ve got enough to do already.” The existing central terminal model, she says, offers the advantage of having more control over making sure people are using it correctly.
The Greenmarket hopes to make EBT access available at all of its 49 markets, though Hrechdakian couldn’t predict when that will become a reality. In the meantime, she says, EBT sales at farmers markets have “increased pretty much across the board” this year,
thanks in part to coupon books mailed out by the Greenmarket in conjunction with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “It’s a win-win situation,” Hrechdakian says. “There’s access to healthy food for communities that need it, and income for farmers to maintain small family farms and keep them viable.”