Midtown Farmers Market Leads the Way (Again) with EBT Program, "Market Bucks"

In 2006, the Midtown Farmers Market became the first Twin Cities market to accept the SNAP/EBT (supplemental nutrition benefit program via electronic benefit transfer) program (more commonly known as food stamps), thus ushering in a new wave of accessibility for more local food lovers. And earlier this summer, they partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota to make local, healthful food more affordable with a program called Market Bucks. The first $5 of EBT dollars used at the market on any given day is matched – with another $5. And that means $5 more local, farm-direct summer goodies to savor. 

As a result, the Midtown Farmers Market has seen a huge pick up in EBT usage. Nearly three times as many EBT users have frequented the market compared to last year. And now, more of those customers are coming back time and again. Instead of six EBT customers who made return trips in 2009, 25 families have come back so far this year. There is need, there is awareness, and there is traction. Midtown’s match program provided that second $5 more than 120 times in seven weeks. 

From the vendors’ perspective, this EBT program is a huge win for the wellness of the community.  Says David Gray of eQuality Farms, “This program is great for Midtown Farmers Market. The value of offering a healthy choice to EBT customers is the most important thing.” 

A few facts from the folks at Midtown Farmers Market: 

  • There is an increased need in our community for food support. In 2009, 13.8 percent of Minnesota households experienced food insecurity. 
  • According to a recent Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota report, only 15 percent of Minnesota adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • With more than 60 percent of adult Minnesotans overweight or obese and at risk for serious diseases, we’re all vested in this effort, because we care about a healthier Minneapolis. Access to affordable, fresh produce is a big step toward that goal.

Without dissecting the argument about why buying healthful, natural, “real” food is better for all of us, we’re still left with the question of, “Is it really enough to make a dent?” Is this food truly accessible to everyone who needs it? Just over 40 million Americans receive nutrition assistance, and the program grows by more than 20,000 people per day. But the SNAP benefit averages around $135 monthly, or around $4.50 per day. Can you really eat whole, real food on that budget? Possibly, even probably. But does this takes time and commitment: intense planning and budgeting, cooking from scratch, changing habits. It’s fine to run an experiment and see what’s possible (heck, it’s admirable); but what if this is your life? How do you make the transition to fresh produce and away from packaged, processed meals? How do you learn to cook the foods that will nourish your family? How do you help your kids get interested in fresh over fast? How do you even get started?

Well, Midtown Farmers Market and the $5 match is a step in the right direction. (Recently, the Minneapolis Farmers Market has agreed to participate in the program, too.)  Plus, all around the Twin Cities, there are classes on how to shop farmers markets (and co-ops, for that matter) on a budget. But it seems that the best place to start is by getting the word out, leveling the challenge at other farmers markets to get on board, and bringing more people along on the healthful, local food journey. And where you can, help -- donate, teach, volunteer. Bring your own passion for our delicious Minnesota food to the table. Step by step, our love of fresh, healthful food is creating change.

The Market Bucks program was developed through a community partnership and includes the participation of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis, the Statewide Health Improvement Program of the Minnesota Department of Health, Hennepin County, and the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. And many thanks to Amy, Jessica and Eric at the Midtown Farmers Market for assisting us with this story.

Tracy Morgan is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She also runs Segnavia Creative, a business development and marketing firm, and serves on the board of directors for the Mississippi Market Natural Food Co-op in St. Paul.