RALEIGH, N.C. — The federal government is spending $4 million to help hook up farmers and low-income customers.
Currently, fewer than a quarter of the nation's roughly 7,100 farmers markets are set up to use the Electronic Benefit Transfer system, or food stamps. But Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, said she hopes these grants will bring another 4,000 of those outlets on line with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"SNAP participation at farmers' markets helps provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families and expands the customer base for local farmers — a win-win for agriculture and local communities," she said in a statement.
The money is to equip these locations with wireless "point of sale" equipment to be used with the food program's debit cards. Grants range from $5,404 for Delaware, which has 11 markets, to $426,945 for California, with 687.
Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, was touring sites around the country this week. On Tuesday, he stopped at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, N.C.
"We're on a mission to help Americans eat better," Concannon said after sampling a vendor's blueberries. "And what better place than to provide access, better access to folks for farmers markets. And in particular for low-income people."
North Carolina will receive $109,631.
The Raleigh market has already funded its own wireless system. Still, only four vendors there accept the EBT, though three more are setting up to do so, said Ronnie Best, the market's manager.
"We've been doing it three months and ... we don't even average fifteen sales a week on it right now," said Helen Wise, owner of Wise Farms in nearby Mount Olive.
Concannon acknowledged that many of these markets are off the beaten path and can be hard — and expensive — for low-income people to access. But he said many are within easy reach of the estimate 46 million Americans who used food stamps.
"But in general, I've found that ... once you provide access to low-income folks, they'll come back," he said. "They can price like the rest of us. ... It's one more step in trying to promote healthier eating for the country."
Merrigan said SNAP expenditures at farmers markets have risen by 400 percent since 2008.
Betty Tart of Tart Farms said she, too, sees few food stamp customers at her stand. But she said those who do come by are delighted she can accommodate them.
"It makes me feel good," she said as a large American flag waved overhead. "Because, I have family that has been in that situation. I haven't, but I'm not too far gone. I could be one day."