You may not think of food stamps as being a boon to the local economy, but the United States Department of Agriculture says that they are.
The USDA reported recently that more farmers markets are taking food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as payment — putting federal aid dollars in the hands of local vendors.
Jo Ellen Davis, manager of the Goshen Farmers Market, said that more than $2,000 in SNAP benefits was spent at the market in 2013 — the first full year that the market has accepted SNAP as payment.
“For those in our community that are strapped for money and they rely on that benefit as their main source of food for that week, they can come and get their fresh produce,” Davis said, adding that produce at the farmers market can be cheaper than the same fruits and vegetables at a store.
Another program at the Goshen market called Share the Bounty matches SNAP benefits up to a certain amount so customers can get more for the money. That program provided $730 in matches for SNAP customers in 2013, and would have provided more if donations were there, Davis said.
The idea that SNAP benefits can be used at the Goshen market is not well known, Davis said, in part because “a lot of people still aren’t as familiar with farmers markets.”
She said that SNAP customers can use their benefits on any food item at the market. Even during winter months, the market sells jams, noodles, chocolate, apple cider and more.
Alan Shannon, director of public affairs for the USDA’s food and nutrition service in the Midwest, said that $47,644 worth of food stamps was spent at Indiana farmers markets in 2013 — more than twice what was spent in 2011.
“The trend is more farmers markets and more people shopping at farmers markets,” Shannon said.
He estimates that each dollar of SNAP benefits spent at a market puts about $1.80 back in the economy where that market is located. There’s also fringe benefits — he said farmers market customers tend to spend some time in other local businesses and restaurants, too.
The USDA has been encouraging farmers markets to accept food stamps for the past four years, Shannon said.
“Around 2000, we converted from stamps to electronic benefits,” he said. “At that time, the food stamp customer could just give the stamps to the vendor (at a farmers market). Now, it’s more expensive, you have to get this machine (to process SNAP payment).”
So the USDA started making grants available to help markets buy the machine needed to accept an electronic SNAP payment.
Shannon thinks that the grants, along with an awareness campaign from his department, has caused more markets to start taking food stamps.