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ARCF Grant Helps Helena Farmer's Market
Purchase Payment System to Accept SNAP Benefits
It’s 9:00 on a summer Saturday morning in Helena-West Helena. Under the farmers’ market pavilion, a kaleidoscope of fresh fruits and vegetables gleams appetizingly from vendor booths – fat pink tomatoes, eggplants of all shapes and sizes, purple hull peas, ears of corn, new potatoes, green beans and jars of jams and preserves begging to be sampled.
Traditionally the Main Street Helena Farmers’ Market has been a cash-only enterprise, but starting this summer, a new electronic payment system will make these nutritious fruits and veggies accessible to shoppers who receive government assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
This new shopping outlet provides much needed access for low income residents of the downtown area. “The closest grocery store is two miles from Court Square,” explained Julia Nordsieck, president of the Main Street Helena board of directors. “For people who don’t have transportation, the only access to food is at the gas stations, which serve fried chicken, soda pop and other less healthy options. We see accepting SNAP benefits as a great way to break down some of those barriers to fresh healthy food.”
The payment system, purchased with support from a grant from Arkansas Community Foundation, enables SNAP recipients to swipe their EBT (electronic bank transfer) cards to buy farmers’ market
tokens. These tokens can be used like cash to purchase produce from farmers’ market vendors, who cash them out with the market director at the end of the day.
It’s a win-win-win situation. SNAP recipients are able to purchase fresh, healthy foods using benefits for which they’ve already qualified. Farmers’ market vendors expand their customer base,
and the community benefits from a thriving farmers’ market and increased availability of locally grown produce.
“We want to make the market a viable source of income for our farmers,” said Nordsieck. The Main Street Helena Farmers’ Market opened about five years ago with just a handful of produce vendors, but has grown to about 10. “One of the things farmers have really connected with is that we are accepting SNAP. There’s a possibility to make good sales there, but it’s also a way for them
to give back, and they’re excited about that.”
As the farmers’ market grows and attracts more customers, it’s supporting a resurgence in vegetable farming. Vendors like Harold McGahee, who’s been farming in the area for more than
60 years, exhibit their wares alongside newcomers like Pat Wilhelm, an organic gardener who travels in from Marianna.
Across the state, a growing number of farmers’ markets have begun to accept SNAP benefits. Heather Friedrich, a professor in the department of horticulture at the University of Arkansas, has
worked with a cooperative of nine farmers’ markets in Northwest Arkansas to implement EBT systems, funded through a USDA Farmers’ Market Promotion Program grant. Friedrich noted that
participation in the program has been especially strong in larger communities like Fayetteville and Bentonville.
Outreach work has been key in encouraging SNAP recipients to visit the farmers markets. “We created brochures and flyers and took them to Head Start programs, libraries, food pantries and
other public spaces. We also created a website,” Friedrich said. As the Main Street Helena Farmers’ Market’s EBT system get up and running, the organization is planning similar outreach efforts
in their area.
“It’s one piece of the larger picture that we can do to help fight obesity and end food deserts,” said Friedrich. We’ve got to do whatever we can do to increase access for lower income people and everyone in general – everybody needs access to fruits and vegetables.”