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Farmers Markets: When Will They Accept Food Stamps?

Community groups await Electronic Business Transfer machines to swipe debit cards - and government approval

Last year’s shake-up of Sonoma’s leadership yielded some sweeping changes, among them finding a way for vendors to accept food stamps. The markets are under way, but governmental bureaucracy has prevented some of the city’s neediest residents from access to healthy, fresh foods.

“We’re still probably two months away and that’s if everything moves according to schedule,” said Andrea Davis-Cetina, spokesperson for the Valley of the Moon Certified Farmers Market (). “It’s a long application process and there have also been staffing reductions in the government. We applied for it; we’re waiting for it.”

Davis-Cetina explained that, in some ways, technology has impeded how (formerly food stamps) funds can be spent. Simple coupons have yielded way to debit cards, which has in turn demanded that merchants have card-swiping machines compatible with Electronic Benefit Transfer ().

VOMCFM is currently awaiting approval for such a machine. Once an EBT terminal is in place, people will swipe their CalFresh cards and receive wooden tokens in specific dollar amounts. The merchants would then use the tokens at vendor booths for produce and food and the vendors would remit the tokens for reimbursement. It’s a simple plan that has been working at many other California farmers markets.

Getting the terminal, however, is more complex. Davis-Cetina said the trail of paperwork begins at the state level (CalFresh) and works its way to the federal stages, where the food stamp program is now called SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“This is something we want to do, but right now we’re just waiting,” Davis-Cetina said.

While VOMCFM has a history, the brand-new Glen Ellen Community Farmers Market is also trying to secure an EBT terminal and is being greeted with the same snail-paced governmental reaction.

“This is something we really want to include at our market,” said Kelly Smith, who, along with her team, manages the Glen Ellen Market, which takes place on Sundays. “We have filed the paperwork and done quite a bot of hoop-jumping.”

Smith said she has sought out grants to defray the cost of securing an EBT terminal but is still awaiting approval. Smith is a veteran of market management, having helped oversee Marinwood’s for 14 years. She said California is one of the only states that helps fund certified farmers markets and the inclusion of CalFresh and SNAP resources makes perfect sense. Assembling all of the pieces of the puzzle, however, takes time, she explained.

Both markets expect to be EBT-ready before the season ends and will kick off 2012 fully prepared to work with government-subsidized citizens’ needs.

Among those anxiously awaiting a positive result to the EBT-farmers market situation is Kara Reyes, director of family services at La Luz, a nonprofit center that assists the city’s underprivileged, particularly immigrants.

“I think it’s really important to get quality food home with them,” Reyes said of the city’s CalFresh-reliant residents. “This would also bring a whole new group of shoppers, who currently go to big-box stores, down to the farmers markets.”

Reyes said there has been an aggressive movement to direct the government-subsidized community toward healthier foods. Unfortunately, she said, many smaller markets are not EBT-friendly and the Whole Foods grocery chain is among few available options. She said the availability of locally grown produce and fresh foods such as those sold at farmers markets would benefit low-income families.

Reyes’ only concern is community outreach. She’s glad to know that the farmers markets will soon be EBT-ready, but getting the word out is another issue. She said the state renamed its food stamp program CalFresh about a decade ago but lacked the resources to announce the rebranding. Even the forms currently being used for applicants do not yet have the CalFresh name or logo on them. “They rebranded it, but there was no budget to let people know. It’s confusing to a lot of people.”

Reyes said she hopes the local farmers markets find ways — through schools or senior centers — to let locals know that they will be accepting CalFresh.

“I think it’s a good move,” Reyes said of the markets being EBT-capable. “Now let’s let people know about it.”

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