When food stamps went from paper to plastic at the turn of this century, shoppers who received food assistance were virtually shut out at farmers markets.
That is changing locally with this market season.
Pittsburgh's seven Citiparks farmers markets and Downtown Washington's Main Street farmers market will install electronic benefit transfer (EBT) machines to accommodate people who receive federal food assistance.
The Main Street Farmers Market opens May 13 and runs every Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. until Oct. 28. It will open the season with the EBT machine in place.
The Citiparks farmers markets will not be ready to accept EBT cards at the outset. Funding for that from local foundations is not complete yet, said Corinne Ogrodnik, a student of the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University who initiated the idea as part of a class project. "We want to launch it at all seven markets at once. We hope that by July" there will be a machine at each -- Market Square, North Side, South Side, Bloomfield, East Liberty, Beechview and Carrick.
Ms. Ogrodnik took the idea of making farmers markets in Pittsburgh EBT-card-friendly to Just Harvest, an anti-hunger advocacy group whose co-director consulted with the class to present a viable idea to Citiparks.
It was an idea whose time had already come nationally, one that merges with advocacy of poor communities eating better.
"The number of farmers markets that are now approving EBTs [nationally] has doubled in the past two years," said Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest. "It's part of the effort to improve the nutrition of low-income people."
He said Just Harvest's interest is to expand the use of EBT machines at farmers markets throughout the region. "Citiparks is the most bang for the buck to start with."
Both Citiparks and the Main Street markets will establish a central transaction machine with a cashier. A card user will swipe his card for a certain amount and receive tokens to trade for food. What he doesn't use he can return for a credit on his card. Farmers redeem the tokens for cash.
"It's been successful in markets around the region," said Ms. Ogrodnik. "We have talked to several farmers who support this knowing we're going to have a central cashier. There's a [high] cost associated with the machines and business processing."
Al Lucchini, treasurer of the Main Street Farmers Market in Washington, said EBT machines at farmers markets is a national trend and that Pennsylvania needs to pick up the pace.
"New York state has more than 300," he said.
The Washington market, which started seven years ago, was both a revitalization tool and a way for local people to buy local produce. "It grew and has been very successful, but there was an underserved portion of our community," he said.
The Main Street Farmers Market got an $11,000 grant to install an EBT machine at a central kiosk and to advertise it.
The Carnegie Mellon students' project included mapping neighborhoods where food-stamp eligibility is high vis-a-vis the incidence of farmers markets and access to transportation, said Ms. Ogrodnik. Many high-eligibility neighborhoods have the greatest need because they are not served by grocery stores.
"In neighborhoods that don't have farmers markets but have high eligibility for food stamps, there might be incentive for more farmers markets," she said, adding that Allegheny County consumers redeemed $17 million dollars per month in food stamp benefits in 2009.
"That's a big market for farmers to tap into."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 27, 2010) This story as originally published on Apr. 22, 2010 on Citiparks farmers markets accepting food stamp benefits underreported the annual amount Allegheny County consumers redeemed. The correct amount is $17 million in benefits per month in 2009.
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews.