Beginning May 1, the Carrboro Farmers' Market will accept benefits from SNAP, the federal assistance program that helps low-income households buy food. It is one of the few farmers' markets in the country that does.
"Our whole goal is just to make it an easier way for everyone to come to the market, so it continues to be a community center," says market manager Sarah Blacklin.
Blacklin says the program is necessary, due in part, to a 14 percent increase in Orange County households that qualify for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, since 2005. Yet only 45 percent of those who qualify in Orange County file for the benefits, Blacklin says.
"The majority are within a mile of the farmers market or a bus line that takes them directly to the market," she adds. "We felt we should be reaching out to those members of the community, and also make it easier to reach out to the entire community."
The market's new Common Currency program will accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that are used to make SNAP transactions, as well as debit and credit cards. Here's how it works: Swipe a debit, credit or EBT card at the market's entrance and get "Truck Bucks," or wooden tokens, in exchange. Debit and credit card users must buy tokens in increments of $5; EBT/ SNAP users receive $1 increments. Tokens are used in lieu of cash at vendor booths that accept them, noted by signs at those booths. If you spend $6 but give two tokens, you get $4 cash back.
After the tokens are tallied, the market reimburses participating farmers. Most of the market's farmers are participating in the voluntary program.
For a limited time, a $20 purchase of "Truck Bucks" will be matched by another $20 for EBT/ SNAP recipients. SNAP benefits can be used only for food, not flowers or artisan goods, at the market.
Carrboro already accepts WIC and senior assistance coupons, and tested a pilot SNAP program in 2007. A $17,000 Tobacco Reinvestment Grant from Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International is funding the Common Currency program. The UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention provided research assistance and program development. Leaflight, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit, is implementing the program and plans to start similar ones at the Western Wake Farmers' Market in Cary and the Lexington and Piedmont farmers' markets.
Common Currency Program Coordinator Sabrina López, a communications graduate student at UNC, is focusing on engaging the Carrboro immigrant community, particularly the large numbers of Latino, Burmese and ethnic Karen immigrants, with the farmers' market.
"The resurgence in farmers markets in the United States is proof of the catalytic role they play in community development," López says. "The Carrboro Farmers' Market is a unique public space that encourages a sense of pride and is nurturing and welcoming. We are working to further enable the mixing of diverse cultures and ethnicities found in our community."
Correction (May 3, 2010): The $20 matching program is for EBT/ SNAP recipients only.