BRUNSWICK, Maine — Rose and Randy Bolton wandered through the Brunswick Farmers Market Tuesday morning, armed with food stamps to buy carrots.
“They’re fresher, taste better, and you know they’re homegrown,” said Rose Bolton, eyeing a sea of fruits and vegetables on the town mall. “Some of this stuff might have been picked this morning … you know you’re getting the freshest you possibly can.”
That is if you can afford it.
The Brunswick Farmers Market, like 70 percent of farmers markets in the state where growers sell produce, meat and cheese, doesn’t accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, the federal food service for low-income people formerly called food stamps.
That could change soon.
New funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture now makes it easier for individual farmers to accept SNAP transactions, rather than wait for the markets they participate in to lead the way.
Last year the USDA allocated $4 million to help farmers markets accept the benefits wirelessly. In April the offer was extended to individual farmers.
Until recently, the machines that take electronic benefit transfer cards, which SNAP recipients use to buy food, cost up to $1,000. And getting one was far from easy. The funds can be used to purchase or lease the equipment or pay for wireless access to increase retail opportunities.
“Research shows that about 20 cents of every SNAP dollar spent on food ends up in the pocket of American farmers,” Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon said in a release. “Installing wireless technology at farmers markets expands the customer base for markets and increases the share of the SNAP dollar that goes directly back to local farmers and into local economies.”
Of the $4 million the government has earmarked, $41,000 is reserved for Maine farmers, said Kelly O’Neal, EBT program coordinator for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. These funds expire at the end of September.
Despite the windfall, not everyone has jumped on board. The steps required to accept SNAP are many, farmers say. They have to fill out an online application and work with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to purchase a processor, similar to a credit card machine. Next they must train staff to take transactions.
Most farmers are too busy working and ferrying produce across the state to bother.
Donahue, who works the farmers market circuit, hopes to welcome more SNAP recipients at her booths this summer and eventually on her farm. She sells cheese, milk and yogurt at the Bath, Bangor and Waterville markets, as well as at Crystal Spring Farmers Market in Brunswick and markets in Portland. All except Bath and Crystal Spring accept SNAP.
“It’s the government. When do they ever make it easy?” Donahue said. “It takes some doing to be able to get your ducks all in a row and be able to do it.”
Members of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, who run Crystal Spring Farmers Market, discussed accepting SNAP benefits at its board meeting this week. Executive director Angela Twitchell said the cost has been a problem for the nonprofit, but she hopes the market will snap to it soon.
According to Colleen Hanlon-Smith of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, Maine is second to Hawaii in the percentage of SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets, an “incredible” figure given the state’s short growing season. Less than 10 percent of markets in Maine accepted SNAP in 2011; today that number has more than doubled.
To be eligible for SNAP a family of four must earn less than $2,500 a month. Accepting SNAP at farmers markets not only helps people on a fixed income eat healthfully, it can be a boon to farmers.
Erin Sweeney, agriculture organizer for the Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, said EBT sales at the Ohio Street market in Bangor increased by more than 50 percent last year after Food AND Medicine started offering a 50 percent discount for SNAP shoppers.
“It was a food desert,” Sweeney said of Bangor’s inner city, where people don’t have access to healthy food. “We kept hearing from customers, ‘It’s too expensive,’ and they couldn’t make it work for their budget.”
Getting half-price choice vegetables has made a difference. “It really, proves that, when given the opportunity, folks of all income levels want to purchase healthy food,” Sweeney said.
Emma Wynne-Hill of South Paw Farm in Unity sells vegetables, pork and lamb at the Portland market, as well as in Unity and Bangor. SNAP customers account for more than half of her sales at the Ohio Street market. “Some families come back week after week,” she said.
Healthy food advocates are encouraged that more markets and farmers are starting to accept SNAP across the country. Between 2008 and 2012 the combined number jumped from 750 to 3,200, according to the USDA, with six times as many people using food benefits for fresh and local food in the last four years.
But even when SNAP is accepted, recipients don’t always know it.
“It’s still new,” said Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. “We’re still telling people about it.”
At the Portland Farmers Market this week, Gabriella Sturchio was on the hunt for pesticide-free greens. “I buy the majority of my produce at the market when I can,” she said.
Sturchio swiped her EBT card and received $5 in wooden tokens. A half-hour later, she’d spent a handful on a bag of beets and wove her way through the market in search of more deals.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, a reference was made to the state earmarking $4 million to help process benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated the money.