From York to Presque Isle, Maine’s farmers markets not only offer appealing, healthful fresh produce, but they also provide a cash infusion for small growers, allowing them to continue to farm rather than to sell their land.
So it’s important that Maine residents from a wide cross-section of the community — whatever their income level — have the means to buy their fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the farmers.
That’s why it’s heartening that Maine’s farmers markets want to attract more people who use Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to buy groceries. The statewide organization for the markets — which will discuss the effort at its meeting at the Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell today — wants to double the number of markets that take the cards. And a new program could help meet that goal by offsetting the cost to vendors of processing EBT payments.
Some 215,000 Maine residents now pay for food with federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, distributed by EBT cards. Given cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a crackdown on EBT users, it won’t be easy to boost these Mainers’ access to the healthier food offered at farmers markets, but any progress on this front will be a victory.
There are 139 farmers markets in Maine, and since 2009, the number that take EBT cards has risen from two to 27. (Skowhegan was one of the first farmers’ markets in Maine to purchase electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, technology for food stamps and to require that all market vendors accept EBT and WIC benefit vouchers. The farmers market in Gardiner also accepts EBT cards.)
The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets wants to boost the number of markets that take EBT cards to 50. One obstacle is the price of technology: To handle the cards, each market needs to spend $500 to $1,000 on a wireless terminal. But a $4 million grant program could help cover this cost.
To be sure, SNAP benefits don’t go as far as they used to, whether it’s at a chain store or the farmers market. That’s because the program has been slashed: Last November, funding for SNAP (also known as food stamps) was reduced by $5 billion, when a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill expired. What’s more, Congress is considering further cuts.
Meanwhile, instead of focusing his efforts on helping families who use their SNAP debit cards to try to put food on the table, Gov. Paul LePage is homing in fraud by state debit card users. (The cards are used to distribute Temporary Assistance to Needy Families as well as SNAP.)
The state is spending money in a mean-spirited attempt to ferret out the extremely small amount of misuse of state debit cards when it should be backing efforts such as the one the farmers market group is undertaking, which encourages people to use their state benefits more wisely.
Another challenge that farmers markets face in expanding their customer base is the difference in price between fresh produce and more filling but less nutritious junk food. Some vendors, however, appeal to more shoppers by offering incentive programs, such as two-for-one deals and bonus dollars.
What’s more, the community winds up paying for junk food later on, according to a leading pediatrician, in the form of diabetes and iron deficiency. The former drives up health care costs for the poorest. The latter can damage a developing brain so that children have trouble learning, don’t go on to get the credentials they need to compete in the workplace and also wind up needing assistance.
Expanding the number of farmers markets that can process SNAP dollars is no silver bullet for uncertain access to adequate nutrition, a condition known as food insecurity. With the proportion of Mainers who receive food stamps up to nearly one in five of all residents, the problem is too big for that. But that’s no reason not to cheer as Maine’s farmers take this small step to reach more of our hungry friends and neighbors.