By Claire Walla
For many East End residents, farmers’ markets provide the ideal shopping experience: a place to buy fresh foods and simultaneously give back to the local community.
While local markets have continued to pop up around the East End — most recently on Shelter Island —Ivo Tomasini, co-manager of the Sag Harbor Farmers’ Market, said there is still a percentage of the population for whom the markets seem to be out-of-reach.
“We get a lot of: ‘The market’s great, but it’s too expensive!’” Tomasini explained. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles in our marketing efforts. There is definitely this notion that farmers’ markets are expensive.”
To help address the issue, Tomasini and his wife and co-manager Ana Nieto introduced an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program, which essentially means those who qualify for federally funded food stamps can now shop at the local market, too.
In essence, food stamp qualifiers can hand a government-issued debit card to Tomasini or Nieto, who set-up shop at the front of the market, and one of the two managers will swipe the card for the amount desired by each shopper and then hand them tokens accordingly. (Each token is equal to $1.) Shoppers will then be able to use the tokens to pay the vendors.
Tomasini said the desire to make the Sag Harbor Farmers’ Market food-stamp-compliant didn’t come from customers. Rather, Tomasini said he and Nieto — who have been running the market for about a year, now — are following a national trend.
“There’s a lot of popularity and buzz around the program throughout the nation,” he explained. “And because it’s so popular on a national scale, we thought: Let’s have it at our market.”
Tomasini and Nieto actually spoke to farmers’ market managers across the country, namely those Colorado and Virginia, who have already implemented EBT systems to some success. They also researched the system more locally, speaking with the farmers’ market manager in Westhampton Beach.
“It takes time for it to be successful,” Tomasini concluded. “This will be a whole learning process for both the vendors and the customers. Normally, people [who are on government assistance programs] will just go to a typical grocery store to buy food.”
He added that it will be the job of the market managers to get the word out to the public that they have other options when it comes to paying.
As for the vendors, education will come in the way of what can and can’t be sold to customers. Foods accepted by the federally funded program are: fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, poultry, dairy products, baked goods, jams, jellies, honey, maple products, juices, as well as plants or seeds (excluding cut flowers and ornamental plants, like Christmas trees). Exempted items are “basically, anything that’s a non-food item or anything for immediate consumption,” Tomasini explained. These rules won’t really affect the Sag Harbor market, he continued, because there isn’t a lot of prepared food for sale. Though food-stamp shoppers will be exempt from buying wine.
While Tomasini said he and Nieto have yet to serve a customer using a government assistance program, he hopes the program will encourage more people to take advantage of the market and shop locally. And, in this economy, he suspects there are a lot of people out here who fit that description.
“Quite a few people have already come through the market in Westhampton,” Tomasini gleaned from conversations with the manager there. “People have pulled up to the market in a Mercedes and then pulled out a food stamp — this economy has created a very bizarre juxtaposition. The whole demographics of people who are on food stamps now is changing dramatically.”
Though this season is almost over, Tomasini and Nieto hope to transfer the EBT program to the winter market (for which they are in the process of trying to secure a space). And they will continue to offer EBT services next season.
Once word on the program gets out there, Tomasini continued, “We hope people will start to come out of the woodwork.”