Shoppers stroll through the Englewood Farmers Market on Thursday. In the background, just across Dearborn Ave., is the upstart Dearborn Market.
STAFF PHOTO / MIKE LANG
ENGLEWOOD – Those struggling to pay bills and keep food in their pantries will soon have a new way to buy foods fresh from the farm.
The Englewood Farmers Market will become the first in Sarasota County to accept benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Not only will SNAP recipients be able buy Florida-grown produce or vegetables, a state grant would allow them to double the value of their SNAP dollars.
Lee Perron, director of the market, said the Englewood market has spent months working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up the program, order a mobile SNAP terminal and train vendors on what items beneficiaries can purchase.
He hopes to have a test run with the SNAP program in early May and for it to be fully operational by the time the market reopens in October after its annual summer hiatus.
“Once we go through all that and know the entire platform is working from A to Z, then we’ll officially kick things off,” Perron said. “We want this to be an extremely easy thing for them to do and to see the benefit of buying fresh, nutritious food from the farmers market.”
The announcement comes at a time when the public has turned its attention to hunger in Sarasota County, especially among children.
A report commissioned by All Faiths Food Bank and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation found that nearly one in four children in Sarasota County are “food insecure,” meaning they are unsure about the source and quality of his or her next meal.
Additionally, more than half the students who attend Sarasota County Schools receive government-subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.
Rachelle Lawrence, a South Venice resident who has children ages 3 and 7, said even when money is tight, she always tries to buy fresh food for her children.
“I always try to get healthier foods,” Lawrence said. “If we have to go without one thing to get something healthy we will.”
She said she was thrilled the Englewood Farmers Market would begin accepting SNAP benefits.
SNAP dollars can only be used to buy foods for a household, such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; dairy products; and meats, fish and poultry.
The benefits can also be used to buy seeds and plants.
They cannot be used for items such as alcohol, hot foods, foods that can be eaten in a store or household supplies.
With the mobile terminal, beneficiaries can swipe their SNAP cards, similar to a debit card.
In turn, market organizers will give each SNAP recipient several plastic, colored tokens to be used like cash at qualified vendors.
Tokens used to purchase produce and vegetables grown in Florida will have a special color and designation. In 2013, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded a group called Florida Organic Growers a Specialty Crop Block Grant.
The grant allows SNAP recipients who use their benefits to purchase Florida-grown fruits and vegetables to double the value of the money they are spending.
For example, if a family buys $20 of Florida-grown fruits and vegetables with their SNAP benefits, they will actually get $40 worth.
Perron said after each market, qualified vendors will turn in the tokens they received and will be reimbursed by the market before the next week’s gathering.
He added that the vendors he has talked with seem eager to begin using the new form of payment.
“I’ve already started talking with produce vendors, they’re all incredibly excited about it, especially the six Florida growers,” Perron said. “They see the benefit of SNAP in the community and doubling those dollars to feed more people. They want to be able to do this.”