Spring has finally arrived, and with it comes the reopening of local farmers markets. Fruits and vegetables fresh from a nearby farm are among the things that some Mainers dream about over the course of a long, dark winter.

Now a program called Harvest Bucks is helping extend this seasonal bonus to people who might otherwise not be able to afford to partake. Money distributed through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, goes 50 percent further when spent at participating farmers markets. That not only sends nutritious food to homes where it’s desperately needed, but also puts money in the pocket of hardworking farmers, expanding the market for their goods.

It’s rare to see a program that provides such a clear benefit for both sides of the transaction, and more farmers markets and individual vendors should make sure that they have the technology to participate.

Food insecurity is a serious problem in Maine, affecting 16 percent of the population. It’s even higher among children (24 percent) and seniors (23 percent).

When food is scarce, good nutrition becomes a luxury. Low-income families might not have a grocery store in their neighborhood or own a car to drive to one, but fast food is everywhere. Refined grains and processed food with sugar can make a cheap meal, even though they’re bad for long-term health.

Fresh local produce is a much healthier choice, but it looks to be much too expensive.

Maine’s farmers have struggles of their own. Although the state is in the midst of an awakening around the pleasure and benefits of local food, growing it is still a tough way to make a living.

Farmers markets and farm stands are a way for the people who grow the food to keep more of the proceeds. Anything that will expand the number of people shopping at farmers markets can only help farmers, and we all benefit when working farms stay in business and conserve valuable open space.

People often forget that food stamps is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was designed to help farmers as much as people with low incomes. The beauty of the enhanced SNAP benefits is that some of the help will go to Maine farmers instead of agribusiness giants far away.

There has been a dramatic increase in food stamp usage at farmers markets in the five years the program has been in place, going from $12,560 in 2010 to $120,549 last year. Mainers received $321 million in food stamp benefits, and more of that should be kept in Maine.

About one-third of farmers markets have the ability to read electronic benefit transfer cards. Some farmers have their own EBT readers and can give premium credit, but most do not.

The experience of the last five years have shown the Harvest Bucks program is something that deserves to grow.

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