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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Velazquez family shops with their food stamps Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011 in the last farmers market at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.
The fact we're making it easier for folks to access healthy alternatives, that's really important.

SALT LAKE CITY — An expanded program that enabled food stamp recipients to shop at 11 farmers markets in Utah yielded more than $30,000 in transactions this summer.

"The fact we're making it easier for folks to access healthy alternatives, that's really important," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger.

Reports are still trickling in, so the final number could exceed $30,000, Cornia said. That's up from $17,000 in transactions a year ago.

In the fall of 2010, Utahns Against Hunger applied for a community grant from Goldman Sachs on behalf of area farmers markets. The grant was used to purchase point-of-sale credit card machines. The machines were programmed to accept Horizon cards, the electronic cards on which food stamp benefits are loaded.

The cards were then swiped for specific dollar amounts at exchange booths. Participants were given wooden tokens to spend at qualifying booths. Prepared hot food and non-food items sold at farmers markets, such as soaps or jewelry, were not eligible for purchase.

Some food stamp recipients became regular shoppers at farmers markets and they were able to negotiate bargains with growers, Cornia said.

While some food stamp recipients purchased a variety of items over the summer, others bought produce in bulk to preserve it to eat later in the year.

"What they told us was they were going to put up peaches, make raspberry jam or make spaghetti sauce. They're stretching those benefits putting it in to food preparation," she said.

This flies in the face of the sensibility that people don't know how to cook these days, Cornia said.

"There are clearly people who are thinking and planning to have good, fresh food for their families."

The program also provided an opportunity for more people to take part in the farmers market experience.

"It can be a scene for sure, but it's really a valuable experience to be part of the community," Cornia said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com