At least two of Pittsburgh's Citiparks farmers' markets — the East Liberty and North Side locations — will accept food stamps this season.
"It's a win-win for poor people, affluent people, farmers and the communities," says Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a local nonprofit that helped acquire several free Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) terminals for the city from the state.
The markets stopped being able to accept food stamps in 1994, when the EBT cards replaced the paper coupons. Since then, markets have struggled to find a way to make it work.
"The technology was unreliable, and that was a big barrier. It's also expensive," says Emily Schmidlapp, manager of the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District. The terminals, she says, cost about $1,000 each. In addition to making the market accessible to those using food stamps, the terminals also accept credit and debit cards, allowing all customers to benefit.
The Strip District market, which is outside the seven city-run farmers' markets, received a free terminal from the state last year. Because it focuses on organic foods, the prices can still be a deterrent to food-stamp recipients. The market sold about $350 worth of market goods through the food-stamp program, compared to $6,000 in credit-card transactions.
Schmidlapp says she hopes to offset that difference this year through a "double-value program," in which someone using $10 worth of food stamps would be issued $20 in tokens to spend.
Schmidlapp, who also works for Just Harvest, says the benefits of extending food stamps to markets "go in every direction."
As of April, there were 161,787 people issued food stamps in Allegheny County, totaling more than $20.94 million in benefits, according to Regal.
"That's a huge amount of business for small family farmers," Schmidlapp says.
Regal says the goal is to get terminals in the other markets "as quickly as we are logistically able to do that."
"There has been this false stereotype of food-stamp users as people who waste their money on food that isn't good for you, even though there is no data to support that," Regal says. But "if we want people to use their food stamps to get the best, most nutritious food for that dollar, farmers' markets are one of the best ways of doing that."