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Food Stamps Use On The Rise At Farmers Markets

Shoppers stroll the rows at Tremont's Tuesday evening farmers market.

The amount of food assistance dollars being spent at Cleveland's farmers markets increased 34 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to data WCPN requested from the USDA.

The city is part of a national and statewide trend of more people redeeming their food assistance benefits - often called food stamps - at farmers markets during the past five years. Last year alone, Ohio reported that spending in 2014 was 19 percent higher than the amount spent in the summer of 2013.

About $37,500 was spent in Cleveland - more than in any other Ohio city - in 2014. Columbus reported $16,303 in redemptions and Cincinnati had $12,866. The amount spent during the first weeks of open markets this year is not yet available.

Darcy Freedman, associate director of the prevention research center for healthy neighborhoods at Case Western Reserve University, says the amount being spent is less than one percent of the total redemptions being made, but there are reasons to believe spending at markets will grow in the coming years.

"There's a couple of things going on, one is there are more markets. I mean markets are growing exponentially across the country, across the state of Ohio. And there's also a push to get more markets to accept SNAP," Freedman says. "Then, the second thing is the development of the incentive programs."

Freedman says Cuyahoga County has a particularly high use of SNAP benefits at markets because nearly all of them accept the benefits as payment. Across the country, she says, only one in four markets accepts SNAP.

"So there's been a big push at the public health level as well as the USDA to get more and more markets to become SNAP accessible," Freedman says.

SNAP, or the federally funded supplemental nutrition assistance program, works in conjunction with programs like Produce Perks, which gives users extra money if they spend their dollars at a farmer's market.

On a recent Tuesday night at Cleveland's Tremont farmer's market, a band played to set the mood as shoppers browsed the rows of white tents. Lush green lettuce, bright red beets, and fat yellow squash filled the tables.

The near west-side market is the county's the top market where food assistance benefits are spent, with more than $12,000 in sales last year, says Jim Votava, Tremont's farmers market manager. 

"I think it's location, we have quality vendors, it's accessible and we really drive the program ourselves," Votava says.

A tent is set up near the front of the market, where recipients can turn money on their electronic food assistance cards, similar to debt cards, into tokens to be spent at the market.

George Remington with the Morningside Farm says the program has made a difference in his sales.

"It really makes a difference for us at this market, in particular," Remington says. "We see the full range of people here in Tremont."

Browsing the rows of stands, a gray-haired woman named Debra is guided by her adult daughter.

Neither wanted to give their last name, but with full smiles said they were there for Debra to try the Produce Perks' program for the first time. After seeing an advertisement for the program on Facebook, they had an extra $10 dollars to spend.

"It was a great deal. And to get fresh fruit and vegetables on that, is much better than them going to the grocery store and just buying junk food," says Debra's daughter.

Story by Sarah Jane Tribble