More than 30 farmers markets in Minnesota now accept food stamps, and that number could grow with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This summer, the USDA awarded Minnesota more than $85,000 to expand the number of farmers markets that take food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"It's important because we really want to get people access to healthy fruits and vegetables," said Audrey Rowe, administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the USDA. "Many EBT participants... live in food deserts, first of all. So they don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And if they do, it may be something in a corner grocery store that's been there for quite some time, and it's not fresh fruits and vegetables."
Rowe visited the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis Tuesday to encourage more markets to take food stamps and outline USDA efforts to help.
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Years ago, farmers markets accepted food stamps with little trouble. That changed when the USDA eliminated paper coupons in favor of an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which works much like a debit card. But the markets need a machine to process food stamp cards, a machine that can be costly.
Farmers market leaders also have to convince vendors to participate.
"Engaging in a federal bureaucracy or a state bureaucracy sometimes makes farmers think, 'OK, is it really worth it? What is the financial gain?'" said Rowe. "Farmers are also business men and women. So when you start talking to farmers about the increases in redemption, that's a real revenue base for farmers to begin to look at."
Nationally, food stamp expenditures at farmers markets have jumped 400 percent since 2008.
Redemptions also have climbed at the Midtown Farmers Market, the first in Minnesota to accept food stamps. About 50 food stamp recipients use the market on any given day, said market manager Amy Behrens, who adds that the market is the first in Minnesota to accept food stamps.
"When we formed this market, we founded it to be for the people who live here, to provide food for the people who live here," said Behrens. "And a lot of the people who live here use EBT. So accepting EBT at the market makes it a place where they can shop."