Local News

Local food is on sale!

The state’s Harvest Health coupon program offers low-income Vermonters a buy-one-get-one-free deal

By Dan Colton

Since summer 2007, there have been concerted efforts throughout Vermont to attract participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), formerly known as Federal Food Stamps, to spend their electronic benefit transfers (EBT) at local farmers markets. Farmers market currencies exchangeable for EBT, such as tokens and coupons, are geared towards increasing the consumption of local, affordable, high-nutrition diets for low-income households.

The Farm to Family and Harvest Health coupons are among the plethora of incentives existing for EBT recipients today.

The Harvest Health coupons, available to any EBT recipient, doubles the value of an EBT. It’s like everything is buy-one-get-one-free! Though Vermont’s taxpayer-funded credits literally pack twice the punch at a farmers market, less than 1 percent of Vermont’s EBT were spent at farmers markets in 2013.

EBT at Vermont farmers markets is still experiencing growing pains. A lack of funding for outreach and education is a key component to community under-involvement, says Daniel McDevitt, EBT director for the Vt. Department for Children and Families. EBT outreach funding in the state’s budget “is a very small drop however important it may be,” he says.

Most people don’t realize their EBT can be spent at farmers markets, and even have a greater value there. “What’s happening is that every year the people that are on 3SquaresVT roll over,” McDevitt admits, referring to the state program which administers federal EBT throughout Vermont. “Next summer comes, a whole new group of people don’t know they can use their cards at the farmers market.”

“I hope people will speak to their [legislative] representatives and say that more funding for EBT at farmers markets is needed,” McDevitt says.

Kyle Tremblay, a 30-year-old Rutland unemployed man, has used EBT for about 18 months. Occasionally he visits the Rutland farmers market, the largest market in the state, to shop on Saturdays. “It’s just better food,” Tremblay says. “I know where it’s been grown, and, you know, it’s food stamps—so it’s taxpayers’ money—so it’s going back into something that’s in the state. I feel a lot better about that,” he said. But he sees the vast majority of EBT recipients avoid market because they aren’t familiar with affordability efforts and, thus, feel financially incapable. He also says that many recipients prefer to spend their monthly EBT on one large purchase at a chain store rather than from local farmers markets.

Angela Smith-Dieng, an advocate working with the Vt. Department for Children and Families, says that only a fractional percentage of Vermont’s annual EBT allocation of roughly $120 million was spent at farmers markets during 2013. “$86,824 was spent at markets [during 2013],” Smith-Dieng says, “the vast majority of benefits are spent at large retailers. Good news is when we look at 2013 compared to 2012, we saw a 12 percent increase in EBTs spent at farmers markets. We’re hoping to obviously increase that percentage each year,” Smith-Dieng reports.

Farmer Lindsay Courcelle of West Rutland’s Alchemy Gardens says she has noticed the effect of the EBT programs at her stand. “When the coupons started coming out, you saw new people.” Courcelle’s farm even allows EBT to be exchanged for community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.

Other obstacles face market accessibility for EBT users. For instance, farmers markets aren’t open daily, casting difficulty on shoppers’ schedules; many people don’t know when their local market is open or that it accepts EBT; some people are unsure of how to use their EBT and debit cards at the farmers market because it’s different than at a grocery store; and transportation to rural markets within secluded regions imposes constraint on many low-income households.

“These kinds of programs take a long time for the outreach to really spread throughout a community and for people to change their behaviors and shopping habits,” Smith-Dieng says. “We’ve only had EBT at Vermont markets since 2007. The fact we are only at $87,000 [in July] isn’t a big deal. We’ve seen a lot of change, we just need a lot more.”

“I think we’ll get there,” she adds, “it just takes a sustained commitment from the community members and partners.”

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