By David Runk & Sarah Skidmore, Associated Press Writers
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Despite widespread efforts to attract low-income shoppers, farmers' markets have had limited success in drawing people like Bishop Reed, who in the past three years has lost his job and his home.
Reed signed up for food stamps six months ago and uses them to buy groceries for himself, his teenage daughter and a niece at either a local grocery chain or one of the discount stores.
"What is a farmers' market?" asked Reed, a Portland-area resident, when told he could use his benefits there as well.
About one-fourth of the nation's 6,000 or so farmers' markets accept food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. But the bulk of SNAP benefits redeemed last year — 82% — went to grocery stores and supercenters. Less than 0.01% was spent at farmers' markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although organizers have opened markets in a wider array of neighborhoods and changed their marketing tactics to reach low-income residents, many food stamps users still don't know they can shop at the markets, lack transportation or time to get to them or simply believe they can spend their benefits better elsewhere.
Advocates say the issue is important because one in eight Americans now receives food stamps, and low-income communities often have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems made worse without access to fresh, healthy foods.
"It is the best place to spend the (money)," said Anna Curtin, education and outreach specialist for the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon. "It benefits users, it benefits the farmer, it benefits the larger community. And it is the freshest, healthiest food you can buy."
Kevin Mansfield, 51, of Portland, is on disability and hasn't worked in several years. He laughed at the idea of visiting a farmers market, although there is one nearby, because his food stamps add up to only $16 a month. He combines them with his daughter's benefits to do the family's shopping.
"I try to get vegetables, but I don't get fruit because it's so blasted expensive," Mansfield said.