Lawmakers Help Food Stamps Get to Farmers Markets

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food stamps at farmers markets

Tina Tennyson loved
to make raspberry jam using the fresh fruit she bought at the farmers
market in San Jose. When she recently moved to Sacramento, she hit a
stumbling block: the local market didn’t accept food stamps.

Like most farmers markets across the state, the one held Sundays in the state capital only accepts cash.

Lawmakers
are considering a bill that would help the markets get equipment to
accept electronic food stamp benefits cards ? joining legislatures
nationwide considering similar measures they hope will expand the menu
of fresh food options for the poor as food stamp enrollment soars.

“Everything
in the supermarket is expensive, and a lot of their fruit and stuff is
not ripe,” said Tennyson, a 39-year-old grandmother who feeds a family
of three on $300 a month. She called California’s bill “a good idea.”

The
supermarket checkout counter-style card readers operate like those used
for bank debit cards, except the cards cannot be used to get cash. Only
about 15 percent of the 640 markets in the state have the capability.

State
Assemblyman Juan Arambula said he introduced the bill to help poor
people gain more access to fresh fruits and vegetables because poverty
and unhealthy lifestyles lead to obesity and diabetes. Unemployment
soars above 30 percent in some communities in Arambula’s Central Valley
district.

“You have poor people who work out in the field and
make very little money, and they can’t afford to buy nutritious food
for their families,” said Arambula, an independent from Fresno.

The need is growing amid the struggling economy, and persistent joblessness.

Enrollment
in the federal food stamp program grew by 43 percent in California from
October 2007 until October 2009, according to the nonprofit California
Budget Project. By comparison, the group says enrollment grew by 6
percent over the same period from 2001-2003, the last significant
economic downturn.

Ballooning food stamp programs also have
prompted lawmakers in Indiana, Texas, Vermont and other states to
propose laws that would make it easier for farmers markets to get and
use the machines, said Douglas Shinkle, policy specialist at the
National Conference of State Legislatures.

“This has definitely
been a popular issue,” said Shinkle, who is working with a lawmaker on
drafting a similar proposal in Illinois.

Most farmers markets in
California are cash-only operations and are set up in fields or parking
lots that lack electricity. To accept the cards, the markets have to
get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and obtain a
reader. Wireless devices can be used, but they cost about $1,000.

“They
just don’t have the money and personnel to do it. They’re just too
tight on their budgets right now,” said Dan Bass, general counsel for
the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets, which promotes
and lobbies for 140 markets.

Bass originally opposed the bill,
which would have required the markets to accept the cards, but then
worked with Arambula to make it more acceptable to farmers: the
requirement was dropped, in favor of encouraging third parties to set
up the machines for the markets or in some cases run them.

The
Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which trains farmers
to become independent and sell directly to customers, helped draft the
bill. The group has worked with farmers markets from Fresno to Oakland
to set up the systems.

The legislation was modeled after a San
Francisco ordinance that requires all farmers markets operating within
the city to accept the food-stamp cards, said Martha Guzman, a
legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance
Foundation.

“The legislation is a huge compromise,” she said. “It’s not the model that’s ideal, but I think it’s one small step forward.”

On
a recent, rainy Saturday morning at the farmers market in the San
Francisco Ferry Plaza, farmer Johann Smith reached over tables
overflowing with cider bottles and pink lady apples, exchanging cash
and
small talk with customers who ranged from top-tier chefs to stroller-pushing moms.

Smith said when customers hand him wooden coins, the market’s currency for food stamps, he usually gives them a hefty discount.

“It’s a way to give access to people who wouldn’t normally have access to a farmers market,” he said.

SOURCE: The Associated Press (c) 2010