Glenwood Springs Downtown Market meshes with federal nutritional aid programs
July 28, 2013
Now in its ninth year, Glenwood’s Downtown Market has become a Tuesday tradition of live music, fresh produce and handmade goods in Centennial Park.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known features of the summertime market is its capability to accommodate locals with varied economic backgrounds by facilitating the use of two federal aid services: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
WIC provides vouchers for the purchase of food for eligible women, infants and children, while SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, provides financial assistance to low-income families for purchasing food.
As of the end of June, 2,184 Garfield County households were receiving SNAP benefits, according to the Garfield County Human Services Department. About 650 county families receive WIC benefits, according to the county Health Department.
SNAP benefits are distributed via a specialized debit card system known as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), which makes accessing fresh produce, meats and breads at local farmers markets a difficult process, since many small vendors aren’t able to process credit and debit cards.
With this challenge in mind, members of the market’s board collaborated with Alpine Bank beginning in 2009 to access a credit card terminal with EBT capabilities, which is now housed at the main market booth each week.
“We got a card system put together, but in the beginning the technology wasn’t at the point it is today,” explained Judy Shaffer, vice president of regional retail banking for Alpine Bank. “We had this long phone cord, which ran clear across the park, through the alley, in the back door of Anderson’s Clothing and into their fax machine.”
After the first two years, technological advances allowed the market to begin utilizing a wireless terminal, where individuals with SNAP benefits can scan their EBT cards in exchange for wooden tokens that can be used as currency with all of the market’s vendors.
Thanks to funding from Slow Food Roaring Fork, the market was able to double the value of SNAP benefits, meaning individuals can swipe their EBT cards for $20 and then receive $40 worth of tokens to spend on fresh produce, meat, bread and honey at the market.
Tom Passavant, the chapter leader of Slow Food Roaring Fork, explained the organization’s goal to be “deeply involved in any effort that creates the supply to meet the demand for high quality, locally grown food.”
“When [the market organizers] approached us a few years ago, we though it was the perfect Slow Food project,” Passavant said. “It’s a win-win situation. People who couldn’t afford to buy all their groceries at farmers markets now can, and it helps the growers themselves.”
The market also worked with the Garfield County commissioners to provide the same service for those with WIC benefits, who now receive double vouchers for use at the market.
“The idea for double value was to get them to buy locally and fresh and to get over the false stigma that fresh, organic food always costs more,” said Sharill Hawkins, one of the market’s organizers. “Some people even say this costs less than the grocery store.”
The first year, the market sold only $20 worth of products with the SNAP tokens. By 2012, however, that number had skyrocketed to more than $2,000.
“The market started as a community event, and this helps include everyone, since one in seven Americans receives SNAP benefits,” Hawkins explained.
In addition to locals receiving SNAP and WIC benefits, Nancy Page, another of the market’s organizers, said having access to the terminal has also been a major benefit for market-goers who don’t have cash on hand.
“Being able to take credit and debit cards is huge for our visitors, who may not have cash on them,” Page explained. “Visitors can swipe their cards for $10 tokens, and last year we made $13,000 that way. That’s money our vendors wouldn’t otherwise get.”
The Glenwood Springs market’s shift toward accommodating SNAP benefits has been part of a larger national trend, spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Over the past several years, the USDA has engaged in multiple campaigns to promote healthier nutrition choices for those receiving SNAP benefits. With roughly 8,000 registered farmers markets and fewer than 2,100 of those able to process EBT cards; however, a major issue remains.
“Although healthy foods aren’t necessarily more expensive, many low-income people face time and resource challenges when it comes to putting healthy food on the table that can make less healthy options seem more appealing,” said Tom Vilsack, the USDA’s agriculture secretary, in a press release Wednesday.
Because of these challenges, the USDA has focused on increasing the number of markets able to process EBT cards. As evidenced by Glenwood’s Downtown Market, a number of local organizations are stepping up as well.
“This is one of the most satisfying things Slow Food Roaring Fork has ever done, and I’d love it if other people in the community stepped up with this endeavor,” Passavant said. “So little money can have such an enormous impact on people’s lives.”
Currently, Glenwood’s Downtown Market is the only farmers market in Garfield and Pitkin counties to accommodate SNAP benefits and one of the few locations where locals can utilize the specialized WIC vouchers, which are designated specifically for farmers markets by Garfield County Public Health.