SALT LAKE CITY — Katrina Sturgeon was shopping for apples Saturday at her local farmers market — a seemingly mundane errand that has made life much easier for the mother of three ever since the market began accepting food stamps.
"We're staying at the Road Home right now, and the grocery stores are so far away," she said. "So we come here to buy our fruits and vegetables."
The Downtown Farmers Market, where Sturgeon shops weekly, is one of 11 farmers markets in the state that accept food stamps using wireless, point-of-sale credit card machines programmed to accept Horizon cards, the electronic cards onto which food stamp benefits are loaded. The cards are swiped for a specific dollar amount, and participants are given wooden tokens they can spend at qualifying booths.
Last fall, Utahns Against Hunger applied for a community grant from Goldman Sachs on behalf of area farmers markets to enable them to accept food stamps.
Four markets were already on board, and the grant enabled six additional markets to get the necessary technology.
"It's good for the economy and helping low-income people make ends meet," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. "Beside the nutritional health, there's a community health aspect that is being enhanced in being able to go down there and part of the community and part of the 'scene.' It really creates a sense of belonging and a sense of wellbeing."
Utahns Against Hunger, which operates the food stamp booth at the Downtown Farmers Market, expects to handle $20,000 in transactions this summer, up from about $17,000 last year.
Participant Barry Anderson said he believes in local, community-supported agriculture, and he loves being able to shop at the market where he thinks the food is fresher than in grocery stores. A newspaper printing press operator for 18 years, Anderson is out of work, and his wife is interning to become a preschool teacher, but she's still a year away from full-time employment.
"Without this food stamp program, I don't know where we'd be," he said.
He also says the market tends to be less expensive than standard grocery stores, something Cornia said is supported by evidence.
"There's some argument that people think 'Oh, you know, stuff at the farmers market is so much more expensive.' There's actually been some study done. They're priced about the same, and so going down and buying vegetables that maybe were just picked that morning, the nutritional value is higher."
Many markets around the state sell everything from produce to soaps, lotions, incense and jewelry, but Cornia said those items are off limits to food stamp participants.
"There are some restrictions on what you can buy," Cornia explained. "You cannot buy prepared hot food. You cannot buy nonfood items and you can't buy crafts and things like that."
While food stamp recipients could use their tokens at specialty food tents, one high-end cheese vendor said he rarely receives tokens as payment, since recipients generally stick to the basic fruit and vegetable offerings.
Darci Bangerter with Bangerter Farms said she welcomes the tokens, even though it requires an extra step to get payment, since vendors are tasked with cashing out the tokens they receive. She said she sees people from all walks of life pay with them, especially in this economic climate.
Cornia said the backing of vendors is important.
"There's a vendor education piece. We spend some time talking to vendors, and they sign an agreement that they will take tokens and that they cannot give back change so they have to deal in whole dollar amounts.'"
In addition to Utahns Against Hunger spreading the word on its website, www.uah.org, the state Department of Workforce Services, which oversees food stamp benefits, has created banners for each of the participating markets. It also has distributed fliers to community partners such as churches, emergency food pantries and libraries to encourage participation at farmers markets.
Some participants save up their tokens to buy items in bulk at the end of the summer, Cornia said. One participant saved up $300 in tokens and spent it on organic beef, which they froze and ate over the winter. Others buy in bulk and can or make jam from the produce they purchase at the markets.
"They're doing all kinds of things they could not afford to do before because the markets didn't accept food stamps," Cornia said.
While Utah has historically had low participation in the federal food stamp program, since 2007, the state has experienced a 112 percent increase in the number of households using food stamps. "That not only puts food on the table, it creates economic activity. Just in May, $33 million was spent in food stamps in Utah alone."
A complete list of participating markets, along with hours of operation, is available at www.uah.org