Press-Republican

May 14, 2012

Farmers market benefit programs explained

LAURIE DAVIS, Cornell Cooperative Extension
Press-Republican

---- — In my job, I spend a good part of the spring tracking down all the farmers markets in the Adirondack region.

The rising popularity of farmers markets — up nearly 25 percent over 2011 — demands that we keep our information current and accessible. There are plenty of places to find local, fresh food this year.

As I compile the information about the markets I have to pay special attention to documenting benefit programs in which the markets may participate. There are currently three types: Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) checks, Women, Infants and Children Vegetables and Fruits Check Program (WIC VF), and Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. Because these three excellent programs are often under used at the farmers markets, I wanted to clarify them and encourage anyone who qualifies to make the most of the benefits.

The FMNP program has been in use at the markets for the longest period of time. It was established by Congress in 1992, to "provide fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants, and to expand the awareness, use of, and sales at farmers' markets".

These benefits are not to be confused with the WIC VF checks, which I will cover later in this column; these are part of a Special Supplemental Nutrition Program within WIC. Families who qualify for and participate in the WIC program are issued a packet of checks to use throughout the season specified for use to purchase local produce. New York State has nearly 4 million dollars in grant funds allocated towards FMNP checks — the largest allocation in the country.

Senior citizens may also be issued packets of FMNP checks. To determine if they are eligible to receive these checks, seniors should contact their local Office for the Aging.

These checks are a wonderful opportunity to increase the purchase and consumption of fresh, local food in our region. In 2011, 77 percent of the senior checks were redeemed in the tri-county area, but only 50 percent of those isseud to WIC recipients. If you are a recipient of these benefits, be sure to get to your farmers market and collect your produce.

Most farmers markets have at least one farmer participating in the FMNP program — they must meet state requirements for producing at least 50 percent of what they sell, and they're issued a stamp to be able to redeem the checks. A 2009 Journal of Nutrition article revealed that "farmers gain 7—9 percent more than the coupon redemption value through additional purchases" so this program benefits producers nicely.

The Women, Infants and Children Vegetables and Fruits Check Program (WIC VF) is relatively new on the scene, implemented in 2009. This program provides WIC moms and kids with regular WIC checks that can be used at either farmers markets or grocery stores to purchase fruits and vegetables. For farmers to redeem these checks, they must undergo an application and training process that is much more rigorous than for the FMNP checks, so fewer farmers participate at present. Check with your local market to see if the WIC VF checks are accepted there.

Lastly, Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards are being taken at some markets in our area. An EBT card is issued through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program. Folks with EBT cards are welcome to use their benefits at markets that are set up with an EBT machine, which requires electricity and good cell service — not always available at rural markets.

These programs benefit everyone: farmers, consumers and community. Encourage your local market to participate in these programs if they don't already. We all deserve to enjoy our local harvest!

Adirondack Harvest is a regional organization dedicated to connecting our local farmers with consumers and can help you in your quest for local foods. Visit www.adirondackharvest.com for a complete listing of regional farmers markets. Laurie Davis is an Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the Coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Office phone number: 962-4810 x404. Email lsd22@cornell.edu.