Mainers who receive federally funded food assistance will be able to use their electronic benefit cards to buy produce at certain farmers’ markets and farm stands in Portland and Lewiston, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a side benefit, shoppers also will be able to use their bank debit cards at the same markets, where many growers have accepted only cash.

The USDA announced today that it has awarded a $300,000 grant to Cultivating Community, a nonprofit agency in Portland that promotes community development through agriculture training programs, especially for young people and immigrants.

“We wanted to make the markets accessible to all consumers,” said Craig Lapine, executive director of Cultivating Communities, which sponsored 34 gardeners and farmers in and around Portland and Lewiston last year.

The $300,000 grant will be used, in part, to equip agency-sponsored farm stands and markets with card-swipe machines so growers can accept electronic benefit cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program.

The card-swipe program will help provide healthier food to some of the more than 129,000 households and nearly 252,000 individuals in Maine who are enrolled in the SNAP program, said Kevin Concannon, U.S. under secretary for food and nutrition.

“In the United States today, we’re almost addicted to prepared foods,” said Concannon, a former human services commissioner in Maine. “When foods are grown and sold locally, it helps people eat healthier and it encourages the local economy.”

Cultivating Community received one of 27 grants awarded through the Community Food Projects program, which distributed $4.8 million nationwide, Concannon said. The money went to programs that feed low-income people and increase self-reliance in low-income communities, among other goals.

Cultivating Community started the card-swipe program late last summer, in partnership with farmers’ market managers in Portland and Lewiston.

The agency set up a kiosk at each market where SNAP and debit-card users could buy tokens to spend at individual grower’s stands. The growers turn in the tokens for cash reimbursement. According to Lapine, market managers said the kiosks have helped boost sales.

“For individual farmers, dealing with a swipe machine is kind of a pain in the neck,” Lapine said. “This way, the market is the vendor, not the individual farmer.”

Tokens purchased with SNAP cards can only be spent on vegetables, fruits and other food products, Lapine said. Hot prepared foods and nonfood items, such as crafts, cut flowers or potted flowering plants, are not eligible for purchase with SNAP cards. Tokens purchased with bank debit cards can be spent on anything.

Card swipe machines also may be used by growers who sell produce at certain urban neighborhood farm stands in Portland that are sponsored by Cultivating Community.

The winter farmers’ market at the Irish Heritage Center on Gray Street in Portland is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday, Lapine said.

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