The end of farmers market season marked the beginning of a food revolution in Omaha. For the first time people receiving SNAP benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps, could use those benefits to purchase fresh, local food at three Omaha Farmers Markets.
“We didn’t have any numbers in mind when we started the program, but we definitely exceeded our expectations,” said Heidi Walz co-project manager for the Omaha Farmers Market. “Our vendors were very pleased with it. They felt like it increased sales, brought in new customers and they were very happy simply from the mission perspective of getting fresh food those who need it most.”
Approximately 70,000 people per month in Douglas and Sarpy counties receive SNAP benefits. Increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables is important in any population but is considered critical to a low-income population that consists mainly of children and seniors.
“In Nebraska, we are not good. We do not get enough fruits and veggies in our diet. We are in the bottom ten in the country and for our low-income families it’s a primary concern. Our low income areas don’t have the same access to high quality fruit and veggies to feed their families,” said Wanda Koszewski, director of Nutrition Education Program for Limited Resource Families at UNL.
A Wednesday evening farmers market located in the parking lot of the Charles Drew Health Center, 2915 Grant Street, served multiple purposes by increasing access to fresh produce for those in a low income area, accepting SNAP benefits and special Women, Infants and Children (WIC) farmers market coupons.
“We were really glad to participate in the Charles Drew farmers market,” said Jodi Welchert of Ken Welchert Gardens. “We had a huge response with the WIC coupons and the SNAP benefits. A lot of people brought their kids with them so we also had some great teaching opportunities.”
Walz said the Charles Drew market focused primarily on the special WIC coupons, so SNAP transactions were minimal, but between the Saturday Downtown Omaha and Sunday’s Aksarben Village Farmers Markets vendors saw and average of 32.5 transactions per week.
When the Farmers Market acquired machines to process SNAP benefits it opened the door for those who forgot to bring cash to use their debit or cards. Although debit and credit card transactions were considerably less, they still averaged about 16 per week between the two markets.
Shoppers purchase tokens from one location on site and then use the tokens to purchase food. Vendors cannot give change for SNAP tokens due to government regulations, but they can for credit or debit card tokens. Every three weeks vendors give their tokens to the market managers who calculate the total and then issue the vendors a check the following week.
Part of the program’s success can be attributed to the amount of research and energy Waltz and her team conducted prior to implementation. The token system used at the market is pretty common among farmer’s markets across the nation, but Waltz added token pouches and labeling systems to help organize currencies for the vendors.
For Welchert, whose family manages 25 acres of produce just six miles east of Bennington, the addition of SNAP benefits to the farmers market selling process was smooth. The only exception was when someone using a $1 SNAP token, for example, purchased food priced at .75 cents. Because vendors can’t give change for SNAP tokens, they would often discount produce to give the customer a full dollars worth.
Even still Welchert is grateful to be a participating SNAP vendor.
“To me, the kids were the best part. It’s not like they hadn’t seen a vegetable before but it was just seeing the food in a different way. A lot of them were used to seeing green beans in a can for example, in this environment we could say, ‘Look this is what a green bean looks like when it’s fresh from the garden.’”
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