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Virginia Farmers Market Programs Work To Expand Access To Fresh Produce

Emily Hobbs with the Family Nutrition Program at Richmond's Birdhouse Farmers Market
Emily Hobbs with the Family Nutrition Program at Richmond's Birdhouse Farmers Market. She helps shoppers learn about preparing produce, extending the harvest and incentives that double SNAP benefits at markets. Catherine Komp/WCVE

At farmers markets throughout Virginia, many residents use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables. Some markets offer incentives, like two for one. But earlier this summer - a problem with the vendor processing SNAP payments put this service at risk. WCVE Interns Mara Guyer and Kate Seltzer have more for Virginia Currents.

Transcript:

Vendors at the Birdhouse Farmers Market are peddling mushrooms, apples, and pastries. Colorful signs invite shoppers to examine piles of sprouts and squash. One booth hosts the Family Nutrition Program, where intern Emily Hobbs is giving out cups of kale salad.

Emily Hobbs: Today I’m talking about how to extend the harvest of farmers market food. So I have a sheet I’ve been handing out of what to do with different types of produce before you freeze it - so like blanching it, or just throwing it in the freezer, cooking it all the way.

The program is co-sponsored by Virginia Tech and Virginia State University and sends interns to markets across the state. They stage cooking demos using fresh produce from vendors, and their booths are stocked with nutritional fact sheets.

Hobbs: A sheet that lists out different types of food and where to store them in order to keep them the most fresh.

Hobbs tells shoppers that receive SNAP benefits about incentives available at farmers markets. She says people are often surprised when they learn about perks like doubling funds.

Hobbs: Say you want to spend $20, and then the market will give you an additional $20 to spend on fruits and vegetables, which is a great incentive program for people, especially lower income families who want to feed their families healthy foods.

The Birdhouse Farmers Market will match SNAP benefits up to 20 dollars, while some markets  don’t have a cap. Manager Cheryl Bursch says it comes down to funding.

Cheryl Bursch: Most all markets in the area accept SNAP, for one thing, that’s pretty broad - the match just depends on grant money. So the other market that I manage in Petersburg, we don’t have grant money right now. So we don’t - we’re not able to match SNAP. We accept it, and we’ll give you those tokens. There’s a token system also. But we can’t offer that match. There are some markets that are able to offer a dollar for dollar match, no matter what the money amount is. That’s the best deal you’ll get.

Before customers can shop using SNAP, the market has to process their EBT cards. At Birdhouse and other markets, shoppers convert their funds to tokens. Bursch explains how it works.

Bursch: So we have a system where if you come up to the tent, whether you have a SNAP EBT card, or whether you have a credit card, it’s the same process. So it’s kind of good because there’s really no stigma to it. You just come up and hand us your card, and we process it the same way. We just run it through our little iPad here.

Once patrons have the tokens, they’re free to shop at eligible food booths. Like at grocery stores, SNAP recipients can’t use their tokens on non-food items or hot meals.

Elizabeth Borst serves as Executive Director of the Virginia Fresh Match Program and works to increase access to locally grown products. She says the token system is a way for low-income shoppers to extend their funds late into the month.

Elizabeth Borst: Receiving those Virginia Fresh Match tokens - that can become a savings account, in effect. It’s doubling your money, so you can take some of that doubling and put it in your pocket and use it at the end of the month when some of your benefits run low.

Borst says there are about 250 farmers markets in Virginia, and nearly half are authorized to accept SNAP.

Borst: About 70 of those work collaboratively with Virginia Fresh Match to offer nutrition incentives. I will say that the bulk of SNAP sales at farmers markets in Virginia occur at markets that offer an incentive program.

To become SNAP vendors, markets have to get authorized by the USDA. Then they have to get access to technology that can process EBT cards.

Borst: It’s just a small card reader, but it has to be linked to the state’s SNAP system, so that the amount of SNAP that people use can be debited to their account.

This summer, a near shutdown of a major national EBT processing app run by the Novo Dia company cast uncertainty on farmers markets. The app received temporary funding to keep up service, but Borst says the incident shows how fragile SNAP programs can be. She also says Virginia has services in place to insulate its markets from technology failures.

Borst: The Virginia Department of Social Services has a free equipment program, so markets in Virginia that have been affected by - for example, the Novo Dia shutdown - can and have gone directly to DSS and requested new equipment.

Despite funding and technology challenges, Borst says farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits are an important source of food security for many Virginians. The markets are limited by operating days and location, but Virginia Fresh Match hopes to cover more ground with a pilot program in grocery stores soon.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Kate Seltzer, and I’m Mara Guyer, WCVE News.