There are more than 240 farmers’ markets in Virginia, and now more consumers than ever can shop at them as the U.S. Department of Agriculture expands the mobility of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“The SNAP program is really about health and nutrition, and what better way to have fresh fruits and vegetables, and be able to support your local farmer, than to accept SNAP … at the farmers’ market?” said Leanne DuBois, direct marketing specialist at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We have the capability through usda to allow all farmers’ markets in Virginia to have a wireless terminal that can accept SNAP payments at the market.”
SNAP is what used to be known as food stamps, and the program’s electronic debit cards can be used at 72 Virginia farmers’ markets.
“Vendors at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market think it is really important that everybody in our community have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said market manager Tracy Herner. “It’s really been an added benefit to get out in the community to go to different churches, volunteer with different outreach programs, and let them know that we’re here. We have this wonderful outlet they can just enjoy with their families and pick the fruits and vegetables with their children.”
Congress recognized the growing popularity of farmers’ markets and the need to improve nutrition for low-income families by including $100 million for matching grants to help local organizations promote more purchases of local foods in the 2014 Farm Bill. Details of the outreach grant program are being finalized this year. But many markets already have begun reaching out to potential new customers.
“One thing that we learned when we first started this is that it’s not just about having access to fruits and vegetables, but learning what to do with them once you get them,” Herner said. “If you eat sweet potatoes, you know you can do anything from microwaving it to putting it on the barbecue. But if you’ve never had a sweet potato or don’t have access to really high-tech cooking, you may never have tried a sweet potato.”
So Williamsburg market vendors often take time to socialize with customers and explain ways to prepare the foods they sell.
“Because you’re actually buying from the people that are growing it, they eat a lot of what they are growing, and they can tell you very easily how to cook a sweet potato or the proper way to de-seed a bell pepper,” Herner said.