Cincinnati OH – The ongoing battle of trying to eat healthy while on a budget just got easier for those receiving SNAP benefits in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Now customers visiting any of six St. Paul Farmers Markets can double their purchases, thanks to a unique program funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Individual farmers market vendors benefit as well – not only from increased sales, but also because they avoid the expense of purchasing an expensive swipe card reader. Here’s how it works.
Customers go to a central location, hand over their EBT card and ask the cashier to charge, say $5 from their EBT card. They then receive $10 in Farmers Market tokens to spend on locally grown, healthy SNAP-eligible items – like fresh fruits and vegetables. If customers have any tokens remaining at the end of the day, they can opt to return the tokens and have that amount credited to their EBT card, or they can save the tokens and use them on their next visit.
“The customers like it, because it gives them a chance to use it (the market),” says Jack Gerten, St. Paul Farmer’s Market Manager. “Currently, they serve as a replacement for an ATM at two of the six markets using them. Without the tokens, many of these customers would be left out of the picture, unable to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Vendors win in two ways. In addition to selling more product, they also avoid the high cost of purchasing individual swipe readers – a savings of (insert cost of swipe reader). Token based customer transactions are smoother and faster than having to swipe cards for each sale. Vendors typically return the tokens to the administrator at the end of the day for reimbursement.
The program, now in its third season, has been growing steadily. It is in use in six market locations - Downtown St. Paul, Aldrich Arena, Burnsville, Mary Mother of the Church, Burnsville Senior Campus, Signal Hills Shopping Center, and the Minnesota State Capitol.
Gerten recalls searching for a more efficient way to do business without excluding families in need. “We were working with Health and Human Services in St. Paul looking to start an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer Card) program at the farmers market.”
They decided on a central location for EBT swipes and token sales because it was more uniform and efficient than having individual vendors voluntarily purchase credit-card-like machines – which would be hit or miss, since many would not purchase them. “This way we have a central place to handle transactions” recalls Gerten, “and the customer has a wider range of growers to choose from.”
Many different options were considered by Gerten and his team, including wooden tokens, paper vouchers, and metal tokens. After reviewing them all based on ease of use by customers, overall cost, and longevity they opted for durable metal tokens.
“They are less cumbersome – and easier to distribute to our customers - and they hold up longer than wooden tokens without wear.”
An unlike wooden tokens, the metal ones will not absorb dirt, nor will they crack or fade. They are durable enough for use season after season – and they are fully recyclable.
To underscore that point, Gerten initially purchased 10,000 tokens from Cincinnati-based TokensDirect who he found online. In the third year of the program they have not had to make any additional purchases – so the tokens are not wearing out despite the fact that they are in continual circulation.
By all account, the St. Paul Farmers Market EBT program has achieved more than token success. The market contains 100 vendors every Saturday and Sunday, drawing about 600,000 customers visiting through the 30 week season. They eventually expect to double the amount of markets using tokens, and hope to exceed one million customers per year. And that’s a lot of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables sold and consumed locally.