BENNINGTON — More often, consumers are carrying less cash and more plastic. However, not all businesses accept major credit cards, like vendors at the farmers market for example.
In Vermont, there are currently more than 80,000 people who received 3SquaresVT food assistance benefits, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Those who qualify can use the government programs at farmers market to purchase fresh produce, poultry and bread.
At the Bennington Farmers Market, 3SquaresVT users are eligible for two different monetary exchanges. There's the $1 wooden tokens paired with a crop cash coupon that's part of the Crop Cash Incentive Program, and then there's the Vermont Farm to Family Program under the Department of Agriculture.
Those who go to the market without cash can use a credit card to get $5 wooden tokens to buy whatever they want. If there's a $3 cookie being bought with a $5 token, cash will be given as change. This is separate from any government program as the market's own cash credit card substitute.
"Our area farmers markets are bursting with beautiful, fresh, deeply nutritious veggies and we want the market to be accessible to all community members," Karen Trubitt of True Love Farm in North Bennington said. "We acknowledge that people can buy food cheaper, but also that cheaper food is based on exploitive practices on labor and the environment. We like that Farm to Family and Crop Cash/SNAP programs allow people to buy a better quality of food, instead of just the cheapest, and in doing so actually keep more dollars flowing through our local economy – an extra benefit to the state and to its farmers."
The way Crop Cash works is by bringing an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card to a tent at the market with a yellow banner saying it accepts the card. Tell the tent person how much money from the 3SquaresVT benefits you want to spend and swipe the EBT card. One dollar wooden tokens with the specific market's stamp will be given as well as a $1 Crop Cash coupon. This is an incentive to match the 3SquaresVT purchase, up to $10 per market day. Crop Cash tokens can only be used to buy fruit and vegetables, seeds, meats, bread, cereals and grains, dairy products, non-alcoholic beverages and cold food intended for human consumption. Pre-made items are not available to be purchased with Crop Cash, according to the Vermont Farmers Market Currency Cheat Sheet.
The Crop Cash coupons can buy fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and culinary herbs only. They can be used at other towns' participating markets. The tokens cannot leave the market. The $5 tokens have a credit card transfer can be used to purchase anything, but aren't accepted at other markets. It's simply a cash exchange to avoid ATM fees, Bennington Farmers Market Manager Katherine Keys said.
Bob Wood from Wood Family Maple Products and co-president for the Dorset Farmers Market said about 20 to 25 people use the Crop Cash program per week.
"It's popular because they can get more for what they're allowed," he said. "It does help our vendors, and it helps [the customer]. We have a lot of good quality food vendors at the market, and we got a lot of fresh vegetables and they're able to enjoy without spending the extra to get them."
He said the programs are encouraged during market hours. One way of doing so is having signs and banners on vendor tents saying they accept a particular program. This is the same for the Bennington Farmers Market. He added that the programs don't cost the market anything because they get reimbursed by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
The Farm to Family Program from the Vermont Department for Children and Families Economic Services Division is slightly different in that only families enrolled in the state's WIC or Women Infants and Children Program, are eligible. It is also based on household incomes for families below 185 percent of the federal poverty limit. This year, 120 families will receive the coupons, according to Laura Brundage, department representative. She said there are about 1,000 people enrolled in WIC.
"It's helping people patronize local farmers," Susan Gratz, Bennington Farmers Market volunteer said.
"The state maybe recognizes that a lot of people on food stamps don't have access to fresh local foods and it's a way to address the obesity rate and poor nutrition," Keys said. "The state wanted to have an incentive for people on food stamps to spend their market money, their food stamps at their markets. It supports the local economy but you're eating better.
The program includes $30 in coupons and shopping tips about selecting fresh produce. Coupons may only be used to purchase fresh fruits, herbs and fresh vegetables and not baked goods, cider, eggs, honey, meat, flowers or prepared food. The program brochure also contains a harvest calendar and random explanations such as fruits and vegetables being called produce, for example. It also mentions the benefits of eating produce in that there are vitamins and minerals and the fact that it lowers the risk of heart disease. Other tips advise to shop the bargains to store vegetables for the winter, arrive at the market early, plan ahead for what you need to buy and to let the children help choose what foods to buy.
Douglas Jowett, who works the farmers market for Mighty Food Farm from Pownal, has had many customers use the coupons. He believes the "cheapest way to eat is from scratch."
"It's important because even off-season people get in the habit of cooking from scratch," he said. "Even in the months when the program starts going or when the farmers market is slow."
The Bennington Farmers Market is open May 7 to October 29 along the Walloomsac River Walk from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday. The Dorset Farms Market is open May 8 to October 9 at the H.N. Williams General Store every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Manchester Farmers Market is open from May 26 to October 6 at Adams Park on Route 7A every Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m.
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.