Storytelling Spotlight: Florida Organic Growers

This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Florida Organic Growers; Gainesville, FL. Story and photos by David Hanson.

“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.

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David Hanson