Getting fruits and vegetables into the hands of low-income Minnesotans got a little bit easier this summer, as a growing number of farmers markets across the state allowed customers to pay with Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT cards -- the replacement for food stamps.
It's part of a national trend, one aimed at making fresh produce more accessible to the more than 45 million Americans who rely on government assistance to put food on their table.
At least 18 Minnesota farmers markets took EBT this summer, including the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue, where you can easily spot participating vendors by their brightly colored signs indicating the cards are welcome - with a clever twist.
Thai Yang is one of those vendors. He sells everything from green peppers to bananas. And instead of dollars, food stamp customers can hand him small wooden tokens to pay for the produce.
"Before, they always asked me if I take it. I said, 'No,'" Yang said. "Then my customers ask: 'Why don't you take it?' We've been trying to get it for the last five years. So I'm happy."
EBT use at the farmers markets is small. But if the Minneapolis market is any indication, the trend is growing. Use nearly tripled at the Minneapolis market over 2011, to more than 1,900 transactions worth more than $29,000. Outstate markets saw far less use, especially those taking EBT for the first time. Some took in only a few hundred dollars' worth.
Those wooden tokens that Yang and the other vendors accept were introduced after the federal government phased out paper food stamps in favor of plastic EBT cards, which function the same way as bank debit cards. That's when farmers markets got left behind — they didn't have machines to process the cards. That predicament is slowly improving, with grants from nonprofit, government and corporate sources. More markets have machines, and support staff.
At the Minneapolis farmers market, assistant EBT manager Loretta Oates can scan a customer's EBT card, and then hand out an equal value of the wooden tokens. Vendors like Yang can accept the tokens from customers, and then turn those tokens back in to Oates in exchange for money. The system allows vendors to accept EBT without each of them having to buy and operate their own machines.
Yang said he thinks those tokens will improve his business, even though food stamps represent just a tiny fraction of his monthly income.
Farmers markets have also tried to reach out to potential customers to let them know they accept EBT.
EBT recipient Christine Lee recently heard about the new program on the Internet. She said she is grateful for the change.
"I would actually come and just pay cash, but I wouldn't be able to buy as much as I wanted," Christine Lee said. But the advent of EBT at the markets means, "I can have more variety in our produce, and I really actually appreciate that they do take it now."
The Minneapolis markets advertise in flyers and on buses. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota funds an incentive program called Market Bucks, which matches EBT customers $5 for the first $5 they spend. Market organizers all over the state credit that program with bringing in customers.
David Nicholson, a consultant for farmers markets, says food stamp use was much higher at the markets before the switch to EBT cards. Those customers are interested in shopping at the markets because, ''The best and freshest of all fruits and vegetables are at farmers markets. And at farmers markets those fresh fruits and vegetables don't compete with Twinkies and soda pop and things like that for food dollars."
Nicholson hopes the program will spread to more of Minnesota's estimated 145 farmers markets. But it's going to take some effort to get them back now that they use EBT.
"It's on the upswing," he said. "But it's still got a long way to go."