Joco 913

Assistance effort pays off at farmers markets

Beans & Greens, it’s called.

It’s a system that allows people receiving government food assistance to spend some of that money on fresh produce at farmers markets — with a match from a local nonprofit that doubles their spending power.

After five years in place, market managers and the group that helped start it are calling it a resounding success.

Participation in the program has shot up since it was founded in 2010 by the Menorah Legacy Foundation and Cultivate Kansas City, said Ami Freeberg, spokesman for Cultivate Kansas City. The group started in about seven markets that first year. Now there are 16, plus one grocery store.

The cash flow is even more impressive. The first year, about $99,000 in food assistance transactions were due to Beans & Greens. Last year, it was just under $354,000. That includes money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs on both sides of the state line, a program for Senior’s Farmers Market Nutrition Program in Kansas and the matching money from the nonprofit groups. With markets ramped up to full growing-season hours, organizers are expecting another banner year.

It works like this: A person on food assistance can take his or her electronic benefits card to a machine at the information stand at each participating market and request an amount off the card. The person then can get double the amount in tokens that can be spent only at the market.

There are still some limits on what the money can be spent on, and vendors have to abide by them. Change isn’t possible with the tokens, for example, so farmers often will round off the amounts, said Freeberg.

A key element to making the program work is the card reader. Food aid benefits cards can’t be read with the card-charging apps vendors may be using for regular purchases. The tokens ensure the money is spent only at the farmers markets. Vendors turn them in later and are reimbursed.

The program has been a good experience for users and vendors alike, Freeberg said. Users get access to fresh, healthy food made more affordable by the match. Farmers get customers they wouldn’t normally see without cutting their prices. “Everybody in the markets loves this program. The vendors love it and all the participants,” said Freeberg. “It’s really a win-win for everybody involved.”

“If not for this program a lot of people using (food assistance) wouldn’t even be shopping at the farmers market,” said Joe Langeneckert, who manages the Gladstone farmers market. “Some of these folks, it’s like they’ve never had fresh spinach or vegetables before,” he said.

But once they find out how easy it is to use their cards at the markets, they end up being repeat customers.

Gladstone’s relatively small 13-vendor market, now located in a Hy-Vee parking lot near the corner of 72nd Street and North Prospect Road, has participated in Beans & Greens for four of its six years of existence.

“Most farmers are staunch conservatives but they like this program,” he said. “When they first heard about it some of them were pooh-poohing it, but when you see the money in their pockets and the returning shoppers and get that little token, your attitude changes.”

Langeneckert, who also sells his produce at the Morning Dew Acres stall, said the market did about $4,500 in food assistance transactions last year. “I can see sales surpassing $5,000 easily this year.”

Even Hy-Vee doesn’t seem to mind the competition, he said. In fact the store searched him out when the market was looking for a new location. “On market days, their sales go up,” Langeneckert said.

“It’s a fantastic program,” said Joe Antoine, manager of the Independence farmers market. “People on (food assistance) love it. They’re buying everything at half price.”

Farmers also like getting new customers they wouldn’t have seen before, he said.

The Independence farmers market was one of the first to participate in Beans & Greens, signing up when the program first started, he said. That first year was light, with maybe $5,000 in food assistance transactions. “People didn’t know about it,” Antoine said.

But as word got out, participation quickly increased. Antoine estimated the five-year total in transactions for the market of 50 or 60 vendors to be around $90,000.

“New users are ecstatic when they find out about it. The problem is people just don’t know about the program,” Antoine said. “It’s tough to try to get the word out.”

In years past, there wasn’t much available for low-income people who wanted to shop at farmers markets, he said. One program for women, infants and children had vouchers, but funding ended, he said. “When Beans & Greens came out it helped everyone.”

The program has met with enthusiastic reception from users and vendors at the Overland Park farmers market — the only participating market in Johnson County.

“Customers appreciate being able to access local healthy food and spend money with local families,” said Kristina Stanley, farmers market supervisor. “Being able to access healthy fresh food versus processed food is something families are seeking that they really do value.”

Overland Park got involved in Beans & Greens in 2011, and it has been successful both in the number of transactions and dollar amount, she said. The first year, there were only about 124 transactions for $2,840 in food assistance dollars, she said. Last year, that had grown to 1,365 transactions worth $49,500.

“Needless to say, the program has become more popular across the metro area as people become more familiar with it,” Stanley said.

The card reader has also benefited farmers in another way, she said, because it makes debit transactions possible on nonfood assistance purchases. When customers debit their cards for cash to pay vendors, it saves the sellers the transaction fee that goes with typical card-reading apps, she said.

The Beans & Greens program will undergo a small management change this year, said Freeberg. When it was first conceived, Cultivate Kansas City did not have the resources to manage it without help. Menorah took it on for a limited time, but this year, Cultivate Kansas City will be the sole operator.

Freeberg said no immediate changes are planned in how the program works.

Participating farmers markets

In Kansas:

▪ Kansas City, Kan., Farmers Market at Catholic Charities, 2220 Central Ave., Kansas City

▪ Kansas City, Kan., Farmers Market at Juniper Gardens, Third Street Church of God parking lot at Third and Richmond

▪ Kansas City, Kan., Farmers Market at Strawberry Hill, Ann Avenue and North Sixth Street

▪ Overland Park Farmers Market, west of Marty between 79th and 80th streets in downtown Overland Park

▪ Rosedale Farmers Market, 4020 Rainbow Blvd., Kansas City, Kan.

In Missouri:

▪ Badseed, 1909 McGee St., Kansas City

▪ Brookside Farmers Market, West 63rd Street and Wornall Road, Kansas City

▪ City Market, 20 E. Fifth St., Kansas City

▪ Gladstone Farmers Market, 7117 North Prospect Ave.., Gladstone

▪ Harvest Learning Center, 3400 Woodland Ave., Kansas City

▪ Historic Downtown Liberty Farmers Market, 111 N. Water St.., Liberty

▪ Independence Farmers Market, Walnut Street and South Liberty Street, Independence

▪ Ivanhoe Farmers Market, 3700 Woodland Ave., Kansas City

▪ Northeast Farmers Market, 3001 Independence Ave., Kansas City

▪ North Kansas City Farmers Market, Armour Road and Howell Street, Kansas City

▪ Raytown Farmers Market, 6210 Raytown Road

▪ Troostwood Garden, 5142 Paseo Blvd., Kansas City

How it works

Beans&Greens matches the cost of purchases made with SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or with Senior Farmers Market Nutritional Program vouchers. SNAP purchase amounts are matched dollar for dollar up to $25 a week per customer at most markets. City Market matches up to $15 per week per customer. In Kansas, participating markets match Senior Farmers Market Nutritional Program vouchers in addition to SNAP dollars. The entire booklet of coupons is matched.

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