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Farmer's Markets Work to Entice Low Income Customers

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The idea for doubling the value of food stamps at farmer’s markets came to Gus Schumacher in 1980. He was in Boston helping his brother, a farmer, clean up at the end of the day.

"I was packing up a box of pears at the Dorchester Fields Corner Farmer’s Market. And the box fell apart, and all the pears went into the gutter."

Schumacher figured he’d have to throw away the pears.

"So I brought the shovel back to pick them up, and there was a woman and two boys picking my brother’s pears out of the gutter. Out of the gutter. And I said, 'Why are you picking pears out of the gutter?'

She said, 'My husband left me six months ago. I’m on food stamps, and we can’t afford to buy fruit.'"

A few years later, as Commissioner of Agriculture for Massachusetts, Schumacher created a small program that gave help to poor families who wanted to buy produce. Today, he’s in charge of Wholesome Wave, a non-profit that finances over 300 food stamp incentive programs at farmer’s markets nationwide.

And after a grant of $9,000, two of those markets are in Manchester. If you show up with an EBT card and want to spend, say, $5 on produce, the market will give you an extra $5 worth of tokens. You can use them the same day at the market, or come back.

The goal is to get people like Connie Gilman eating better.

"No, I never ate healthy food. Back in my time, I’m from the projects, and, we didn’t eat healthy."

Gilman, who relies on a wheelchair to get around, picks out a head of fresh cabbage and some cucumbers. At the supermarket, Gilman says she’s more likely to choose candy and soda.

Jeremiah Vernon is Director of Agriculture for the International Institute of New Hampshire, which manages the market. He says it will always be tough to compete with cheap calories.

"If you look at the cost per calorie, it’s still going to be hard to justify spending $5 on a head of lettuce, versus going out and buying $5 worth of cheap calories at a corner store. I think what we are trying to work on is the long term positive effects of: eating healthy will be more economical for your family than if you have a poor diet."

It’s good economics for farmers, too. They like being able to compete for the $200 million dollars worth of food stamps redeemed in New Hampshire each year. That’s why other markets, including one in Portsmouth, are now offering other EBT incentive programs.

"I think farmers are realizing that there is a market selling to low income, and I think the low income are beginning to realize there is a way for them to access fresh vegetables."

The USDA is trying to increase that access through technology. They’ve given New Hampshire $54,000 to buy the wireless terminals needed for swiping an EBT card. So far, roughly 20 of the markets in the state are equipped.

There could be a lot more financial support for these programs coming down the line. The Senate’s version of the farm bill allocates $100-million dollars for incentive programs. The House’s version is scaled back to $25-million, still enough to significantly expand these types of initiatives.

But even with more money, changing people’s shopping behavior won’t be easy.

James Arena-Derosa with the USDA says the goal is to get low-income people to begin thinking of farmer’s markets as the primary place for buying food.

"I think that’s the hope. The hope is that eventually, through education, around the quality of the food the nutritional content of the food, that all of us, not just EBT recipients, will have healthier diets."

And that $5 lettuce may be a thing of the past, too. Arena-Derosa says that if farmers can count on a steady, expanding customer base, they can grow more… and sell it for less.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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