The Grand Rapids Farmers Market reached another milestone this year. As of Oct. 3, we’ve sold $7,132 worth of locally grown produce and other goods to folks receiving SNAP benefits. What makes this number so significant is that this number is more than all of last year’s participating Farmers Markets combined.
Let’s explain a few things first. SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is what used to be called the Food Stamp Program. And participating markets refers to the farmers markets across Minnesota who took part in a program offered by the Minnesota Farmers Market Association. The MFMA, through grants from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota, bought wireless card reader machines for the markets, covered EBT, credit, and debit card processing fees, purchased marketing materials and advertising spots, and offered matching coupons called Market Bucks.
The participating markets last year were Albert Lea, Alexandria, Austin, Bloomington, Bemidji, Duluth, and Richfield. So we’re not competing with huge markets like St. Paul or Minneapolis. Still, having EBT sales higher than those seven markets combined is pretty impressive.
“This is just awesome!” gushes Kathy Zeman, Operations Manager of the Minnesota Farmers Market Association. “For a market this size, in a mostly rural community, to have success like this in their first year is outstanding.”
Hurdles to overcome
“Some of our farmers were skeptical about the program last year,” explains market Vice President Bill Boutang, who sells free-range chickens and eggs. “They were worried about government meddling in the market… worried that it would be too complex.” Bill says with a laugh, “Now, they are the biggest supporters of the EBT program!”
The program does have its complexities - this is the federal government after all. Minnesota citizens alone receive more than $600 million a year in EBT benefits; checks and balances are a given.
The grants administered by the MFMA require documentation too. Tokens are exchanged after customers swipe their cards; these tokens are then used like cash at any farmer’s stand. When these tokens get turned in, checks have to be written from the Market’s account. That all adds up to a lot of extra work for the Market Manager, Kent Lorentzen.
“I’ve been doing an average of an hour more bookkeeping each market day,” says Kent. “And I’ve been getting writers cramp from all the checks I write out to the vendors and the associated paperwork,” he jokes.
“It gets pretty crazy from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.… sometimes it’s a real challenge to keep up,” he explains. “And trying to keep everything together when it’s rainy or windy is tough too. Having Hannah was a tremendous help.”
Kent was referring to Hannah Fedje-Johnston, a freshman at St. Olaf College. In her role as a summer intern for the Grand Rapids State Bank, she manned the card reader booth at the market, not only exchanging tokens, but keeping records and educating customers.
“We were happy for the opportunity to partner with the Farmers Market this summer. The technical support we provided in the person of our intern, Hannah Fedje-Johnston, was obviously appreciated by the market participants,” says Senior Vice President Ed Zabinski. “We were impressed with the high degree of professionalism of family entrepreneurs who comprise the Farmers Market. This market is important for their livelihoods, and we will look for new ways to assist them next year. Grand Rapids State Bank is a family business too, and we are proud to have this relationship.”
Others in the community also helped to get the word out. Whether at the Second Harvest Food Bank, Health and Human Services, University Extension educators, or even in local churches, people made sure that folks struggling to put food on the table knew that the Grand Rapids Farmers Market was once again an option.
“I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from the folks I work with,” says Jodi Nordland, who works with low income folks teaching cooking skills in the Extension’s Simply Good Eating Program. “People are actually looking forward to shopping at the Farmers Market… you never hear people get excited about grocery shopping.”
“People really appreciate how friendly, accepting, and comfortable the Farmers Market is,” Jodi continues. “They say it feels like a community.” From Jodi’s point of view, she appreciates the fact that almost all the choices at the Market are healthy.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota made sure that it is an attractive option too by offering their Market Bucks matching incentive. Up to $5 per day, BCBS matched the dollars customers spent on their EBT cards, effectively giving struggling families up to a 50 percent discount on healthy local produce.
As a market, we’ve issued almost $1,700 of Market Bucks; that’s $1,700 of extra produce going to feed struggling families, and $1,700 extra in local farmers’ pockets. The average EBT transaction is for $20, and many folks return each Market day to take advantage of the Market Bucks.
And with the grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that pays up to $130 in credit and debit card fees per month, we’ve really benefited too. We’ve sold almost $15,000 worth of meat, produce, jams, jelly, pickles and honey so far to folks using their credit and debit cards.
“We get a lot of positive comments,” says Kent, “…for people who don’t normally carry cash, it really is a wonderful service to be able to offer.”
And with the challenges farmers faced this year like weather, high feed costs, and the slow economy, offering services and convenience keeps us going strong.
The Grand Rapids Farmers Market is still going full-tilt, with our last day Saturday, Oct. 27. We have fall produce like apples, squash, potatoes, pumpkins and Brussels sprouts. We also have summer produce from our hoop house growers, so there’s plenty of tomatoes, raspberries, peppers and cucumbers too. And don’t forget, there’s always delicious local chicken, pork, beef and sausage for sale to turn a family meal into a feast.
Make the most of those Market Bucks while you can, and stock up your pantry throughout October. Because once we’re gone, you’ll have to wait until May!
Come see us this Monday from 2 to 6 p.m., or Wednesdays and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. We’re growing for you!