Now Accepting Food Stamps: More NY Farmers

When you think of farmers markets — which we do, often — you probably don’t think of wireless technology. The timeless trade under the tents is typically “cash only” and anyone looking to pay for their cauliflower with anything other than cash needs a reality check. Unless, that is, they’re paying with Food Stamps.

The decades-old federal assistance program (it’s now called SNAP!) itself got a twenty-first century makeover a decade ago when the paper slips were replaced with debit-style plastic cards known as EBT, or Electronic Benefits Transfer. The paperless system reduced both fraud and stigma, but it inadvertently left farmers markets on the wrong side of the digital divide. Selling out in the open air at places like Union Square or Washington Market, they lacked the phone lines and credit card machines necessary to process sales with those new cards.

So in the neighborhoods with highest EBT enrollment—where fresh produce can be a rare find—customers could spend their monthly benefit at the bodega, but not at farmstands. Markets nationwide grappled with the technology hurdle, trialing handheld devices and cell phone technology with spotty success.

While New York’s Greenmarket network, a program of GrowNYC, is well-known for its specialty produce and chefly devotees, its busy locations in low-income neighborhoods have become the biggest market EBT success story in the country, and electronic sales have skyrocketed like a stand of sweet corn in the summer sun. The project — where customers use their cards at a Greenmarket Info Table to get tokens they can use at farm stands — began at three markets in 2005 (with annual Food Stamp sales of $1,000); this year Greenmarket expects EBT sales to pass the half-million mark and EBT clients can now redeem their benefits at 40 Greenmarkets city wide. (Here’s the list.)

The most recent to come online? Union Square, which was outfitted with the terminals this month and is already processing $4,000 a week in EBT sales.

One secret weapon behind these impressive numbers has been a “Health Bucks” initiative. Greenmarket collaborates with the City Department of Health and the Farmers Market Federation to operate the initiative, which provides EBT shoppers in Bed-Stuy, Harlem, and the South Bronx with a $2 coupon for every $5 in EBT spent at the market (while funds last), effectively discounting produce purchases by 40% and delivering fresh local food to the people who need it most. Sound like good stuff? It is indeed, and we suggest to show your support you consider buying a ticket to the annual (and always amazing) Taste of Greenmarket event on October 6th.

Betsy Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley writes about New York City history and culture. She hopes to find Tiffany blue dragees in her Christmas stocking this year.

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