Farmer’s markets reach out to low-income patrons
CLEARWATER - With record numbers of Floridians relying on food stamps, farmer’s markets are offering incentives to help struggling families make healthy food choices. Vendors at the Clearwater Gateway Farmer’s Market this month began accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer credit, or food stamps, and recently started giving customers double their food credit up to $10 each Saturday. Market organizers say it can be difficult to convince needy families they can afford fresh ears of corn or green beans -- rather than sodium-rich, nutrient-poor canned goods. Clearwater market organizer Maria Rodriguez remembers a month-long diet of crackers and coffee when she was a single mother.“It seems crazy, but you have to go through this thing of whether I pay my rent or I feed my child,” she said Saturday. Allowing families to stretch their assistance dollars to buy fresh food is helpful, Rodriguez said. While the number of people using food stamps at the Clearwater market isn’t huge – about a dozen – it has more than doubled since the “Double Dollars” program began. Growing and sustaining those numbers could be a challenge. The Clearwater market, which started in January in a lower-income neighborhood east of downtown, received an anonymous $5,000 grant to fund the program. But the need is great, with a record 3.6 million Floridians in January receiving federal assistance to eat. That’s about one-fifth of the state’s 19 million people. Pinellas County had 151,914 people on food stamps. The well-established Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg has 22 vendors that accept food stamps, but it has been a challenge to get people to use them. For one thing, a bus route providing convenient access to the market on First Street ended service just as the market began offering its own Double Dollars program, making participation a challenge for families without a car. There’s also a perception the market’s many boutique food stands are too expensive. The market’s manager, Gail Eggeman, said during the time she ran the Double Dollars program last year with a $10,000 grant from the Franciscan Sister of Alleghany, the number of people using food stamps tripled. “When we first started, it was just sort of dribbles and drabs, it was very slow,” she said, “and then it built,” she said. But after the grant ran out, the number of people spending food stamps dropped off. Eggeman has applied for grants so she can reinstate Double Dollars. “That Double Dollars really encourages people to come and buy vegetables,” she said.