Pa. moves to make produce more accessible for low-income residents

    More farmers across Pennsylvania will be able to accept ACCESS cards, the modern version of food stamps, thanks to federal stimulus money.

    The state Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for 145 free wireless card readers to increase the availability of fresh local produce to low-income residents.

    Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Nicole Bucher said the majority of the machines, which cost about $1,000, will likely be awarded outside of the Philadelphia area, because many of the city’s farmers markets already accept the electronic benefit transfer or EBT cards.

    “Traditionally these machines are more available in urban areas,” Bucher said. “But this program is allowing us to spread that program into rural areas where people can benefit.”

    Food stamps were replaced by electronic benefit transfer cards, called ACCESS cards in Pennsylvania, in 2002. They made it easier for people to use the benefits, but impossible for vendors without expensive card readers to accept them.

    In Philadelphia, the nonprofit Food Trust has made EBT card readers available for years. This summer, 26 farmers markets operated by the group will have one central machine. Shoppers pick out their produce, swipe their card at a central kiosk and take a signed slip of paper back to the farmer to pick up purchases.

    “It’s definitely a bit of a hassle, but we think it’s a service that’s important to our customers,” said Nicky Uy who manages The Food Trust farmers market program.

    In a pilot program at the Clark Park market in West Philadelphia in 2008, giving card machines to all vendors cut down on that hassle and doubled ACCESS card sales at the Saturday market. But those sales only accounted for about 1 percent of revenue. Still, more machines will be better, even if not many land in Philly, Uy said.

    “I think the more established it becomes that you can use your EBT card at a farmers market, the better it is for everyone,” Uy said. “A huge part of our challenge is letting our customers know that they can spend their benefit dollars at the market.”

    What Uy thinks will have bigger effect: Philly Bucks, a coupon program launched last summer that gives people on benefits $2 back for every $5 they spend at farmers markets.

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