“Please don’t make me get squash,” Keri says to her sister. “We had so much squash with grandma and I don’t know what it was – the mushy texture, maybe – but I just never wanted to eat it again. It’s a creepy gourd to me. We got enough creepy people in our life, we don’t need creepy vegetables.”
So Keri and her husband John, and Keri’s sister and her baby boy do not buy squash at the Alachua Farmer’s Market on a Saturday in late November.
They buy radishes, arugula, artisanal cheese, green onions, spinach, lemons, cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, spring mix, and broccoli. For just over $25 in EBT food stamp money.
“We’re ‘pescavores’ and this is enough to feed us for a week and a half,” Keri says. “It would cost over $50 to get all this at Publix or Ward’s (the best chain grocers in Gainesville).”
Keri is a funny, expressive woman. She shares her enthusiasm for her market morning ramble audibly, commenting on the beautiful greens or debating aloud whether they should get the pecans. They end up being too expensive of an indulgence. This is her 24-year-old sister’s first farmer’s market experience. Keri called her and said, “Come on! Bring your little boy. Let’s go to the market together as a family, European style!”
The Alachua Farmer’s Market has a small tent to the right of its entrance. The tent has a table with a laptop, a credit card swiper, and some pamphlets. Since 2009 Florida Organic Growers, a local non-profit with a mission to support and promote sustainable organic agriculture, has managed the swipe card booth at this market on Saturdays, and the bigger, busier downtown farmers market on Wednesdays.
The Alachua County government funded the first year of the EBT and swipe card booth. Funds from the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant have supported the last few years. Annual costs run $27,000 to operate the swipe option. There’s the equipment cost and the paid labor to be present at the booth, but the majority of that overhead figure pays for the USDA’s reporting requirements for food stamp use. It’s an ironic twist – that a hindrance to making fresh, local food available to food stamp recipients is the cost of record-keeping for the USDA, who hands out the food stamps – but it speaks to the hidden complexities of opening farmer’s markets to low-income populations.
“No single vendor at the market could afford the EBT swipe card costs,” says Derek Helmick, a part-time employee for FOG. Derek is a policy, numbers-minded person. The kind of person needed to find matching coordinates between the bureaucracy of government programs and the microcosm small-scale of a weekly farmer’s market like this one in Alachua County. Helmick has nearly completed a guidebook to break down the process of bringing EBT swipe machines to any farmers market, anywhere. They hope for twenty-five more similar market programs in Florida next year.
The swipe machine can be used with credit and debit cards, as well. So it’s not the stigmatized “food stamp booth in the corner.” Whether you swipe your Visa or your EBT card for $25, you get 25 in tokens to spend that day or on future market days. That means the farmer vendors see more purchases with the option of credit card swiping open to all consumers.
Originally, there was a small fee to swipe your credit or debit card, but Derek has abolished that. “It just wasn’t the right way to pay for this operation,” he says. “We’re working with vendors to create an equitable way for them to chip in since they benefit from the swipe booth, both from increased sales via EBT consumers and from increased sales from the credit card option.”
Derek and crew analyzed another common practice in the EBT farmers market swipe scenario: grants that match dollar for dollar when spent on fresh local produce. But some quick analysis revealed that vendors were increasing their prices on match days, so it ended up being a subsidy to the vendors more-so than to the consumers.
Keri is a numbers person, as well. She clips coupons and shops for bargains. She’s a CPA. She’s 33 and has no children. She and John went through the notoriously long, arduous Florida food stamp application process in October of this year. They’ve been using the EBT card for less than six weeks. It was a last-minute preservation effort and nothing Keri ever expected to need. Keri and John both lost their jobs within a month of one another. Keri had been a contract CPA with a large corporation out of Atlanta. John was a manager for an Albertson’s. They had a household income pushing $70,000. Comfortable for Gainesville, FL.
“We felt like we were on the up-and-up, hitting our thirties together with two jobs, a house,” says Keri. “Suddenly we were left with no salaries or benefits. We luckily had some savings to live on while we worked odds-and-ends jobs, and I got some other, smaller contract work. But it eventually got to where we were looking at two more months mortgage in our account. So we applied for EBT dollars.”
Everyone knows the myth of the food stamp: single moms with kids live off them for years, buying junk food at corner stores and chain groceries. John knows that myth firsthand.
“I have to say, when I was clerking at the Albertsons, most of the EBT card purchases were carts full of boxed, processed junk food,” says John.
“Just this week,” adds Keri, “I was in Publix and used a bunch of coupons to buy some produce and healthy food. When I handed the clerk my EBT card, she looked at me funny, like she couldn’t believe I couponed with EBT or that I was buying fresh, healthy food.”
Keri gets $120 per month from EBT. By using coupons at the Publix, she saved $20 on a $100 purchase, leaving her enough to shop for more local produce at the farmers market. She doesn’t plan to be on food stamps for long. She’s got six interviews before the end of the year and she feels like something will land, even if it’s more contract work. John is in school at Santa Fe College, working toward his undergrad degree.
“The face of struggle in America is so varied these days,” Keri says. “But people swim across canals to get to this country. We’re lucky. I wake up and I think, ‘It’s not so bad.’”
“It’s amazing how creative and conscious you become when that bubble (of job security) pops. People are realizing that now. I’ve got a true spirit of optimism.”