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Farmers Markets in New York Experiment with EBT Cards

By Joyce Kryszak

Niagara Falls, NY – It's the height of the season for luscious, farm grown fruits and vegetables. But most people who get help from the government with buying their food can't take advantage of the fresh, nutritional food at their local farmers markets.

The food stamp system was replaced in many states with new Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. And since vegetable stands don't usually come equipped with electricity, both farmers and many poor people were missing the harvest. But New York hopes to change that with a new pilot program that's bringing wireless EBT technology to farmers markets.

Six children form a low circle around Tammy Johnson's skirt. They move together in a cluster through the market, checking out overflowing baskets filled with crayola-colored produce. The single mom from Niagara Falls comes to the city's outdoor market regularly in the summer. Johnson says she has to.

"Because I no more than get stuff and it's gone usually a day or two later, so I prefer it over going to the grocery store myself, because you can get a lot of your fruits and vegetables a lot cheaper here than in the grocery stores, plus it's a lot cheaper, a lot better," said Johnson.

But Johnson says even here its hard to stretch her limited budget. She'll soon get help from the state. They granted her an electronic benefit transfer card to buy food for her family. It's not activated yet, but once it is Johnson says she especially looks forward to using it at the farmers market. But Johnson's enthusiasm for the EBT cards is rare. Most farmers here, and at other test sites, say they've made few EBT transactions. Johnson thinks it's because people still don't know they can use the cards at the farmers markets.

"Nobody really knows how the system works yet," said Johnson. "They put an article in the paper, saying the farmers accept it, but nobody I know has actually used their cards."

Small signs reading "We Gladly Accept EBT" dangle from a handful of the farmers' stands. But they go largely unnoticed. Crowds of people wait along the rows of tables to exchange crisp dollar bills for crisp produce. It's the way business has always been done at the open air markets. Farmer John Senek peers up from under the brim of his tattered green cap. He says the old way is good enough for him.

"Do you have the EBT machine here?" Kryszak asked.

"No, we got one home but we don't use it," said John Senek.

"Why is that?"

"Too much work. I don't know how to run it. I'm too old for that stuff."

Sixty of the hand held devices were given to farmers like Senek who volunteered for the pilot program in May. They did get limited training and the promise that the machines would be free to use - thanks to a federal grant - for at least the first year. After that there could be a small monthly charge, and per use fee. The payments take a day to transfer into the farmers bank accounts. The farmers say they signed on hoping the EBTs would bring them more business. But after the first couple months, optimism is wilting.

"We just turn it on, but it takes a second for it to pop up..." said Jim Miller.

Even farmers who are still hopeful the idea will catch on are concerned about losing cash business while punching in numbers.

As Farmer Jim Miller soon demonstrates, it takes more than just a second. It took about 20 seconds for this trial transaction just to get started.

Miller says it might not seem like a big deal. But he says the lost time could mean losing cash paying customers.

"It takes a little bit more time than taking two dollars from somebody, or ten dollars from somebody. So, you're wasting time while you could be working with other people," said Miller.

New York and the USDA are weighing the program carefully to see if it's worth expanding to other states. Nathan Rudgers is New York's Commissioner of Agriculture. He says they have faith that with better promotion and education the system will eventually help farmers and improve nutrition for food stamp customers.

"We are addressing the issue of education. We recognize the fact that it takes awhile sometimes to get new technology going, but we're confident that business will pick up," said Rudgers. "The whole idea here is to have a win win for both the farmer and the food purchaser. And when we can do that, it's a pretty successful endeavor."

Single mom Tammy Johnson agrees. She says for her - and her six children - the EBT system is a fresh idea worth keeping.

"I just went today to get my card, so my card won't be in effect until Monday, but I'll be back Monday," said Johnson.