Seattle farmers markets have accepted food stamps since 1995, but benefit transactions still account for a microscopically small portion of market purchases: While the figure varies by market and from week-to-week, the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance estimates fewer than 2 percent of its market sales involve Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.
The situation isn't unique to Seattle: While the USDA recognizes that maximizing the use of food stamps at farmers markets improves low-income households' access to "fresh, nutritious foods," redemption rates at markets nationwide fell steadily from 1993 through 2009, when a mere .01 percent of benefits were spent at farmers markets.
"Historically, the percent of farmers' market redemption is very small," the USDA reported in 2010.
But the City of Seattle and the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance are now hoping to significantly improve local statistics by doubling the value of purchases made with EBT cards. The Fresh Bucks program, which debuted this week and runs through Oct. 1, matches participating shoppers' daily purchases up to $10. According to spokesperson Krista Ulatowski, the goal is to double the average number of EBT transactions at each market.
A similar coupon program in Abingdon, Va. sparked the spending of $2562 in benefits over a five-month period at a market that wasn't previously authorized to accept food stamps.
"Fresh Bucks increases the purchasing power of low-income Seattle residents while introducing new customers to the small and mid-size farmers who sell at our farmers markets," Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith was quoted as saying in a release.
Many low-income shoppers learn about farmers markets through statewide nutrition programs, but Ulatowski says budget cuts have limited the scope of their promotional efforts.
"What's exciting about this program is that the grant is providing additional funding for outreach to social service agencies, as well as printed and translated material," she says.
The Fresh Bucks program is funded by JP Morgan Chase, the Seattle Foundation and the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. If funding hasn't been depleted by October, the program will be extended.
At the federal level, the USDA this spring announced a $4 million program to increase food stamp usage at farmers markets. Since the 2004 introduction of the paperless benefits system created new challenges for markets which couldn't afford - or, in certain cases, plug in - the required EBT terminals, the money is earmarked for the purchase of wireless point-of-sale equipment.
"Increasing farmers market participation in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) furthers several worthy goals, including increasing the variety of healthy and nutritious foods available to SNAP participants; aiding the American farmer and supporting local economies," the department explained in a memo announcing the program.