GREENFIELD — Residents who depend on food stamps to do their shopping can now buy groceries at local farmers markets — an initiative advocates hope will provide better access to healthy foods to financially strapped consumers.
The year-round farmers market at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds in Greenfield recently began accepting payment through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a federally funded program for low-income individuals.
Farmers markets received the green light to accept government assistance as a form of payment in 2009, but the program requires an application to cover all vendors; this marks the first year a Hancock County farmers market has signed up to participate.
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Local farmers and other vendors say they hope the new program will give at-risk families access to locally grown healthy food while also spreading the word about what the market has to offer.
Just shy of 5,000 county residents received food stamps in 2015, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Many who rely on food stamps likely don’t consider shopping at the farmers market simply because it hasn’t accepted government assistance programs for payment in the past, said Barb Smith, who coordinates the farmers market at the fairgrounds.
Still, Smith expects more residents will make use of the program as the market progresses into the summer, when crowds are easily twice as large as late spring.
Low-income residents shouldn’t be restricted to do their shopping at big-box grocery stores, where dollars spent don’t contribute as much to the local economy as those spent at farmers markets, Smith added.
Since introducing the program at the beginning of the month, only a handful of shoppers have made use of it, Smith said, but she expects that to change as word spreads.
Tom Ferguson, president of the Hancock County Food Pantry, said the organization struggles to meet demand for perishable products, particularly fresh produce. It’s among the most requested items, he said.
Ferguson plans to refer residents who depend on food stamps to the local farmers market, where fruits and vegetables are often fresher and more flavorful than those sold in groceries, he said.
“It’s always challenging for our clients to get their hands on fresh produce … but this opportunity will definitely be a benefit,” Ferguson said.
Cheryl Tichenor, one of about 20 vendors who participate in the fairgrounds farmers market, said she hopes the program will broaden her clientele.
The market tends to attract the same crowd from year to year, she said, but the program could draw residents who would otherwise write off the farmers market.
Though the market is the first in the county to begin offering the program, Smith, who also coordinates the Cumberland Farmers Market, hopes to spread the initiative.
Sarah Goodman of Greenfield, a regular at the fairgrounds, said she hopes the program will encourage low-income residents to maintain a well-rounded diet.
Goodman doesn’t qualify for food stamps, but she knows several residents who rely on the service regularly. She’s noticed that users often opt to use the program to buy processed foods that are more affordable than fresh produce but don’t offer the same nutritional value.
Goodman hopes expanding the service to the farmers market will give residents more flexibility over what they can use the program for.
“It’ll take some time for word of mouth to spread, but I think it could really make a difference,” she said.
In order to become a SNAP-approved vendor, market representatives must submit an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides details of the market and vendors. Approved vendors receive a small fob that attaches to a cell phone or tablet and is used to process payments, Smith said.
Processing transactions looks no different than swiping a credit or debit card. Receiving approval is fairly straightforward, Smith said.
Vendors are reimbursed for SNAP payments within a week, Smith said.
Markets throughout Indianapolis also are beginning to offer the program, she said, but the program still is underutilized.
“There’s still a long way to go,” she said.
The year-round farmers’ market at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds in Greenfield, which is held every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon, is the only local market that accepts food stamps, but other markets across the county include:
Cumberland Farmers Market: Held every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon at Cumberland Town Hall, 11501 E. Washington St.
Fortville Farmers Market: Held every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Fortville Church of the Nazarene, 701 S. Maple St.
Greenfield Farmers Market: Held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on American Legion Place in downtown Greenfield.