By Melissa Quinn
The Old Town Farmers Market began accepting federal benefits commonly known as food stamps last month in an effort to connect low-income residents with fresh ingredients.
The market — held from 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays in Market Square — started taking the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program electronic benefits transfer cards April 27.
Recipients exchange their SNAP benefits for wooden tokens at the market and then use the chits to buy eligible foodstuffs — like milk, cheese, butter, fresh fruits and vegetables — from more than 80 vendors. Leftover tokens are returnable, with the money refunded to the customer’s account, or spent in subsequent weeks.
“It’s an initiative that helps increase consumer-based markets, but it helps low-income households have access to fresh and nutritious foods,” said Megha Even, market master. “I think it’s important to be sure that all of Alexandria’s residents are able to visit the farmers market.”
Two of the city’s four farmers markets — Old Town and Four Mile Run — accept SNAP benefits, though Even hopes access will expand in coming years.
On April 27, the market welcomed just a single SNAP customer. But Even remains hopeful others will come by the Old Town Farmers Market as the city continues its outreach campaign.
City officials distributed information about the program through Alexandria’s schools, libraries and recreation centers. They also reached out to low-income, subsidized housing complexes and the city’s elderly population.
“This is aligning with the city’s strategic plan of increasing healthy foods,” said Jeremy McPike, director of the city’s general services department. “It made sense.”
The $1,200 grant to launch the program, which was awarded by the USDA and administered through the commonwealth’s Department of Social Services, covers the overhead of point-of-sale machines and transaction fees incurred by EBT cards. With the grant covering operating costs, the expenses for farmers markets are minimal, Even said.
Volunteers help administer the program and also provide information for market customers.
“We’re excited to open up the market to more people, and that’s always a good thing,” McPike said. “It’s people coming to spend at the market, and more fruits and vegetables are being sold by our farmers.”
And, Even said, accepting food stamps at farmers markets has a positive impact on the local economy. For every $5 a customer spends using SNAP benefits, double that amount goes back to the community through economic activity. Federal experts believe SNAP recipients end up spending another $5 at nearby restaurants, stores or city events.
Though officials expected the grant to cover just the program’s inaugural costs, Even said with Richmond’s help, it will be funded for several years. In addition to the USDA and commonwealth, the Old Town Farmers Market has partnered with the city’s Childhood Obesity Action Network.
“The benefits of the program outweigh any of the initial implementation issues,” McPike. “It’s a great program to open up access to healthier foods.”