Vendors line the inside of the long, wooden building that holds the 100-year-old market selling fresh produce, honey, jams, coffee, jewelry, and baked goods. Pumpkins and squash are piled on nearly every available surface. Autumn has shown its face in Duluth; red and orange leaves blow in from outside and slide across the floor. As farmer explains to a customer how to cook a squash, a young woman sits at a table exchanging bags of wooden tokens for the swipe of a customer's card.
This year, Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards are being used for the first time at the farmers market on the corner of Third Street and 14th Avenue East in Duluth. EBT cards have replaced traditional food stamps. Customers at the market can now swipe their cards in exchange for tokens that can be spent on any food purchase.
“Before we had the EBT machine, it was hard to bring lower income people into the market," said Lois Hoffbauer, chair of the farmers market.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Blue Cross of Minnesota worked together to create this program in the state. Markets in the Twin Cities had the opportunity to participate last year. Due to their success, the program was expanded this year to include markets in cities like Duluth, Bemidji, Austin, and Albert Lea. There are currently 13 cities in the state that participate in the program.
Emily Miner, a student intern, is in charge of the program at the Duluth market. She said that on some days, she could see up to 15 families coming in and using the program. On her busiest day, she had over $1,000 in transactions.
“That’s 15 more families in the area eating local and sustainable foods,” she said. “It’s been really successful. Lots of people have had the opportunity to come in and get fresh produce. And it’s usually cheaper than what they can find at the grocery store.”
Making healthy food options available to low-income families and individuals in the area is important to many vendors at the market. For people who traditionally use their EBT cards at grocery stores, the market offers them more options when it comes to eating healthy, said Hoffbauer.
Hoffbauer said although there have always been low-income shoppers at the market, the new program is bringing in families that were not able to shop there in the past. She said additional contributions to the market and local economy are always welcome. In addition, she said that there is a lot of support for the program from vendors and community members.
“We’re all local vendors within 50 miles of the market. We buy our food, our gas, our utilities here. This is awesome for the community because we buy everything locally too," she said.
Sharon Hahn is from Duluth and has been using an EBT card at the market for about a month.
“Thank God we have it,” she said. “I’m worried about the young families in the area that are struggling with jobs and feeding their families."
For people like Hahn, the market provides them with more affordable options for healthy foods than grocery stores do. Often, the cheapest options at grocery stores are the foods most filled with processed sugars and preservatives, according to Hoffbauer.
“People need their calories, but they don’t think about eating smaller amounts of better food,” she said.
Hahn finds that the options are better at the farmers market and make economic sense for her family. Not only does she get to support her community, she is saving money by going to the market then canning her own foods.
“Look at what a can of spaghetti sauce costs in a grocery store," Hahn said. "By the time I’m done canning, I pay half of that.”
Miner and Hoffbauer said that the market will continue to offer this program next year. The Duluth farmers market closes for the season at the end of October.
“It’s been easy to use for the customers and the vendors,” said Hoffbauer. “We’ll be keeping this program around.”