Dear Umbra,

Do organic grocers take food stamps? Do farmers’ markets? If not, what do ecologically/health-minded people on fixed incomes do?

David Burch
South Bend, Ind.

Dearest David,

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Did you know that in many states food stamps are no longer stamps? Plastic cards similar to ATM cards have replaced the paper coupons. Electronic Benefit Transfer, it’s called, and it’s not dissimilar to a bank card with a finite, monthly replenished amount of money.

Out of reach?

Photo: iStockphoto.

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Any store that wants to accept food stamps or EBT can apply to do so. To qualify to accept food stamps, a store has to offer an “ample variety” of the four categories of staple foods, or garner 50 percent of gross sales from one or more staple foods. The four staples, of course, being: dairy; meat, poultry, and fish; cereals/breads; fruit/vegetables; and chocolate. (Oops, is that five?) Naturally, any decent grocery would qualify under these initial guidelines, so if a grocery with an organic or natural-foods selection is not accepting benefits, one would need to ask to find out why not.

For a farmers’ market, accepting EBT is not quite as straightforward. That’s logical when we think of how money exchange usually works at a farmers’ market: how hectic it can be, how the farmers operate on a cash economy that isn’t easily compatible with getting compensated by the government for food stamps wedged into their back pocket at the end of the day, not to mention dealing with an electronic benefits card. That said, farmers and market managers, and folks working with fixed-income clients, have worked hard to make it possible for food-benefit recipients to shop at farmers’ markets. Some markets accept EBT, take special WIC coupons, and/or participate in the federal Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (the name says it all).

The EBT acceptance was piloted in the last few years. One approach is for EBT recipients to swipe their cards at a central terminal and receive scrip to spend at the market; another is for the market to organize wireless EBT swiping stations at individual vendors. Both have their self-evident challenges of confusion in a busy environment, but both have been successful.

Some markets have not been able to integrate these new choices into their operations. To figure out if a specific farmers’ market participates in any of these programs, you’ll have to ask at the manager’s booth (or check with your state nutrition office). If you know persons on fixed incomes who aren’t aware of these opportunities, please let them know. They can learn about the details from their case manager, or the federal Food and Nutrition Service website.