COLUMBIA — This coming spring, the Columbia Farmers' Market plans to yield a crop of low-income consumers who can reap the benefits of local, nutritious produce.
In September, the farmers market learned it will receive more than $57,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote the market’s participation in the Food Stamps Program.
Caroline Todd, manager of the farmers market, said the money will fuel a marketing campaign in March 2010 to advocate the market’s ability to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards. These cards act as a debit card for food stamp benefits and allow those on federal assistance to purchase food authorized by the program.
“This is part of a nationwide campaign to establish more local food systems,” Todd said.
A November 2008 survey by the organization Sustainable Farms and Communities showed that 70 percent of low-income households surveyed do not shop at the farmers market. Todd said this is because of the misconception that market produce is expensive and a general lack of awareness that EBT cards are accepted.
“The purpose is to build awareness,” Todd said. “Obviously, we have some customers that come and use their EBT cards at the market, but more people need to be aware of this option.”
Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with MU Extension, said the grant is a step toward creating equal opportunity in food for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Farmers markets are one of the few places we have in our society where lots of people from different walks of life can mingle,” Hendrickson said. “We need those kinds of outlets. It’s just a very healthy way to build those kinds of relationships in the community.”
She said she believes people are more likely to purchase produce if it is of a higher quality. This campaign will promote the availability of these foods and will therefore potentially improve the diets of Columbia’s low-income households.
“The farmers market is really doing fabulous work,” Hendrickson said. “It’s just really very, very tasty, and when fruits and vegetables taste better, a lot more people are going to eat a lot more of them.”
The produce at the market is grown locally, and Hendrickson said it is picked at the height of its ripeness.
“If you go to a store where they don’t have a love of produce like they do at the farmers market, you just get a different quality in the taste,” she said.
Both the Columbia Farmers’ Market and the Boone County Farmers’ Market accept EBT cards. In August, 8,830 Boone County households participated in the Food Stamps Program, according to the most recent report from the Missouri Department of Social Services. Roughly $2.43 million worth of benefits were spread among those homes at an average of $275.98.
In addition to promoting the farmers market’s participation in the Food Stamps Program, the grant funding also will support the education of the market’s farmers. This winter, farmers will have the opportunity to attend Grow Your Farm, a course through MU Extension, at a discounted price*. Lessons will teach farmers how to write business plans and establish insurance and retirement plans.