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Fresh produce for all incomes

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A visit to the Saturday morning Yellow Springs Farmers Market is an act of community engagement as much as commerce. Neighbors mingle and exchange news while picking out fresh produce and locally made food products for their home tables. Yet, personal finances — or the lack thereof — may present a barrier for some local residents to participate fully in this lively community experience, let alone its access to healthy foods.

That access has expanded this farming season, however, as the weekly market, 7 a.m. to noon in King’s Yard parking lot, can now accept SNAP benefit payments. The federal program that replaced “food stamps,” SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. At the market, SNAP recipients can now swipe their electronic benefit transfer card — in Ohio, it’s called the Ohio Direction Card — in exchange for $1 round, wooden tokens, which they use to make purchases from individual farm market vendors. The vendors then turn in the tokens for reimbursement after the market closes for the week. So low-income villagers now have access to fresh, local produce.

According to the department of Ohio Job & Family Services, 12,618 people living in Greene County received SNAP benefits in 2016. At the same time, also according to the OJFS, Greene County had no farmers market that accepted SNAP benefits last year, making the Yellow Springs farm market the first in the county to do so. What’s more, according to the Yellow Springs school district, 33 percent of local students receive free or reduced-price lunches, suggesting that food need is present in the village.

Providing a means for food support recipients to shop at the local farmers market has been a goal for Michele Burns since she became market manager in 2010 and learned that the market incorrectly was “listed by job and family services as accepting benefits.” The error prompted her to pursue making the listing true.

“I hated telling people that we didn’t,” she said last Saturday from behind her market table filled with bottles of maple syrup produced at Flying Mouse Farms, the organic farm enterprise she operates with her husband.

The decision to pursue the program was simple. Making it happen wasn’t.

Burns, whose day job is associate director at Tecumseh Land Trust, is well experienced in navigating governmental agencies and filling out official forms, yet she found the application process frustrating.

“I first contacted job and family services. They directed me to a state person, and they led me to the website. And that’s where things got complicated,” she said. “It’s not a user-friendly website.” What’s more, the application process, from start to finish, has to be completed within 30 days, or you have to start over, she said.

In the meantime, the market looked for a group or organization that could sponsor the endeavor and take on its financial oversight once the application was approved. Burns said that it was necessary to find “someone to be accountable to.” Conversations with people involved in the local foods initiative at Antioch College and later members of the Methodist Church, which hosts the food pantry, kept the effort active, but unresolved. Then, in casually talking with Susan Jennings, executive director of Community Solutions, Burns learned that Community Solutions was serving that role for a farmers market in Springfield. Jennings offered her organization’s service with the local market as well.

Specifically, Julia Honchel, a 2016 Antioch College graduate whose title with Community Solutions is food systems analyst, moved the effort forward. “She was man on it,” Burns said.

“It was a lot of paperwork,” Honchel concurred in a phone interview. And there were multiple steps in the process where approval for one aspect had to be granted before the next step could be taken. “It was really helpful that it was part of my job for a couple of months,” she said.

Honchel said that advice and hands-on assistance from the Dayton nonprofit group Homefull was invaluable, as has been the support of the Yellow Springs Federal Credit Union.

As fiscal sponsor of the market’s SNAP initiative, Community Solutions is the official holder of the credit union account, Honchel said. For its part, the credit union is offering its services free of charge to the farmers market.

“What we’re doing is providing the services that are required for the SNAP machine processing,” said Sandy Hollenberg, the credit union’s president and chief executive officer. The process involves electronic banking transfers, which normally include a fee for the provider. “The credit union is providing that at no cost (to the market) because of our interest in being part of the community. … We’re a partner to the whole process, and we’re very glad to do so.”

Employees of the credit union also are volunteering Saturday mornings at the market to help process the SNAP transactions. The small electronic device used also can handle credit and debit card transactions for market vendors who don’t have that capacity, though there is a 3 percent fee for that service.

Honchel said she’s been pleased to see how receptive and even excited the vendors have been about the effort, which debuted May 13. Honchel called it a “soft open,” in that the organizers didn’t initially spread the word widely in the desire to give participants time to get comfortable with the process. Still, she said $65 in credit and debit card purchases were made the first week, and two customers used the SNAP service the following week, when a heavy rain shower closed the market early. Organizers now plan to notify area agencies and food banks whose clientele might be interested in the service.

Honchel, who has set up the EBT service at the farmers market each week so far and staffed the table for the first couple of hours, said she has been “thrilled” by the community interest being shown.

“People were excited to have the service available,” she said.

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