People may still refer to them as food stamps, but the federal government now issues an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card instead of paper stamps. And the program isn’t called the Food Stamp Program any longer. It’s now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The EBT cards for SNAP work similar to a debit card with a few exceptions. There are certain items that can’t be purchased with it — like cigarettes, prepared foods, or non-food items — and users can’t get cash back even if they have a balance on the card.

Many farmers markets accept these EBT cards issued by SNAP. Over the past decade, SNAP sales at farmers markets have risen 490 percent. But, even if a market accepts SNAP EBT cards, not every individual vendor is set up to handle them. So farmers markets are coming up with creative ways to make sure that people on SNAP can buy fresh, local, healthy foods with their benefits.

  • Tokens or paper coupons – Many farmers markets, like those in Portland, Ore., offer tokens or paper coupons that can be purchased through the EBT card at one central location. Then they are used like cash at any vendor, but the rules of what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP funds still apply. Fresh produce and meats can be purchased with them, but things like cut flowers, prepared foods, or alcohol can’t be bought with them.
  • Alternative Receipt System – This is a system used at some Massachussetts' farmers markets. Snap recipients shop each vendor first and get a receipt from the vendor. But, the vendor holds on to the bag of food. When shopping is done, all receipts are taken to an information booth where the exact amount spent is deducted from the EBT card. A final receipt showing payment has been made is shown to each vendor, and shoppers can pick up their bags.
  • Incentives for SNAP users – This isn’t a way to pay using an EBT card, but it’s worth mentioning here. Many farmers markets will actually give extra buying credit to SNAP users because they understand they want people who need assistance from SNAP to get as much healthy food as possible. In Michigan, a program called Double Up Food Bucks matches up to $20 in farmers market purchases by SNAP users at participating markets. At New York City farmers markets, Health Bucks offers a free $2 coupon for every $5 in SNAP money spent at participating markets. These are just two of the many regions that are helping SNAP recipients stretch their benefits.
The USDA offers a Directory of Farmers Markets with information that can help SNAP recipients find a market that accepts the EBT cards. Unfortunately, I can’t link to it right now since the USDA’s website is closed due to the government shutdown.

Does your local farmers market have a program in place for SNAP recipients that I didn’t mention here?

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.