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With food prices up, more Ohio farmers markets accept SNAP benefits

 A woman dressed in turquoise scrubs buys vegetables from a farmers market stand. Bouquets of colorful flowers are in the foreground.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
A vendor at the Northside Farmers Market sells vegetables. The market was one of the first in the state to accept SNAP benefits 11 years ago.

On an early Saturday morning, the River City Farmers Market comes to life.

Just blocks from the Ohio River, vendors set up shop under red, white and blue tents, advertising everything from fresh vegetables to locally raised meat.

“We’ve got lettuce, we’ve got broccoli, rhubarb, kale, cabbage,” lists Mike Murphy. He’s been selling produce here for 25 years. “And next week we should have kohlrabi, probably cucumbers and some radishes.”

Murphy is one of dozens of vendors crowded onto the sidewalks here.

“We have about twenty more on a waiting list,” said Marcus McCartney, an Ohio State University extension educator and member of the farmers market’s board.

He says Marietta’s market is so popular because the town, located on Ohio’s eastern edge, is surrounded by agriculture. There are fields of corn and soybeans, dairy farms and beef producers.

“And then, with the rivers, we have a lot of flatland,” McCartney said. “So we actually have a lot of fabulous fruit and vegetable growers that you see here today.”

But even encompassed by fields of farmland, food security is an issue here.

Marietta is home to a handful of grocery retailers. But other than a smattering of gas stations, dollar stores and an assortment of farm stands, food options in the surrounding 40-mile radius are scarcer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines parts of the city and the larger region as food deserts — low-income areas without an accessible grocery store.

Because of this, the Marietta farmer’s market started accepting SNAP benefits this summer.

“We want people to be able to come down here and buy these fresh fruits and vegetables because they do taste better and they are more nutritious,” McCartney said. “Hopefully it gives a way for folks to get access to these foods.”

More Ohio farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits

The Marietta Farmers Market isn’t alone in taking this route.

Data from the USDA shows upwards of 3,000 farmers markets nationwide now accept SNAP benefits — about a 20% increase from two years ago.

In Ohio, over 100 markets are now onboard.

That’s exciting, said Tevis Foreman, the executive director of Produce Perks. The organization provides a dollar-to-dollar match on SNAP benefits up to $25 if those benefits are spent on fruits and vegetables at places like farmers markets.

Foreman said the match matters because farmer’s markets can be expensive for someone trying to stretch a grocery budget.

Since the organization was founded six years ago, interest in it has skyrocketed.

“We have experienced roughly 900% growth since our inception,” he said.

That means more customers are spending more of their SNAP benefits at farmers markets across the state.

“Beyond addressing food and nutrition insecurity for low-income households, there's intentionality around strengthening and stimulating local food economies,” he said.

The Northside model

 A green sign on a sidewalk reads, "Northside Farmers Market, Wednesdays 4-7 pm." It has pictures of carrots and a beat.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
The Northside Farmers Market, tucked into a church parking lot in Cincinnati, is located in a food desert.

Community members at the Northside Farmers Market — tucked into a church parking lot in Cincinnati — know this well.

It was one of the first markets in the state to accept SNAP benefits 11 years ago. Now, it’s a model for just how much business a farmer’s market can do in SNAP benefits.

Visitors spent $15,000 in them at the market last year, Megan Hague, the market manager, said.

That’s partially because they, like Marietta, are in a food desert.

“We don't have a grocery store,” Hague said. “So this is our grocery store. This is where people have access to fresh fruits and veggies and prepared foods.”

Zeke Coleman sells some of those veggies. He estimates he makes up to $100 a week in SNAP and Produce Perks dollars.

“A lot of families around here that are less fortunate come here and double up their tokens and they're able to afford to purchase locally grown food,” he said.

It’s good news for everyone involved.

“We get the money to provide for our farm employees at the farm and they get to get those nutrient dense vegetables,” he said.

Those are benefits more people will get as farmers markets across Ohio increasingly accept SNAP.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.