Updated Thu, Apr 26, 2012 2:52 pm
The Athens Farmers Market has successfully tapped an unlikely market and is helping low-income residents at the same time.
The market has experienced a dramatic increase in revenue from food stamp purchases over the past three years and Athens Farmers Market President Larry Cowdery says he expects that trend to continue.
Cowdery said the market—one of the first to accept food stamp customers—is helping both farmers and the community as a result.
In 2011, the Athens Farmers Market received more than $43,000 in food stamps, compared with 2009, when the Athens Farmers Market brought in $21,000, says Cowdery.
The use of food assistance has become a trend among farmers markets across the state.
The Athens Farmers Market has been accepting food assistance benefits since 2006.
As of 2011, more than 50 Ohio farmers markets now accept the benefits, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
More than 10,000 people in Athens County receive food assistance each month and the number is growing, says Nick Claussen, Athens County Job and Family Services Community Relations Coordinator.
Food stamps contribute to the increased revenue seen at the farmers market, according to Claussen.
According to Claussen, the food assistance helps local business sell local products to more people.
"It stimulates the economy and gets more money out of it than the money put in, because the money is all spent locally; that helps provide jobs," Claussen said.
Claussen added though, the real benefit is improving the nutritional choices among those least able to afford it.
"The Athens Farmers Market has done a tremendous job helping people all, getting access to the healthy and good taste local food, " Claussen said. "Getting people fresh food and vegetables are important to people in all ages."
Claussen said lack of transportation could be one problem that keeps people from visiting the market.
The Athens Farmers Market opened in 1972, and this summer it will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Ed Perkins has been in the market for more than 20 years, and said he has witnessed the market's surprising growth.
Perkins said when the market first started to accept food assistance, each vendor had to learn how to use a machine to transfer the purchase from the customer’s card.
"I ended up never using it," Perkins said.
Later, market organizers began to ask how much money the customers wanted to spend, swipe their card and then give them the market tokens.
"We don't have to do that ourselves, we just let the market do it for us. So, it worked very well, " Perkins said. "We are farmers, we want to promote local foods and this makes them available to lower income people."
Rich Blazier, who was in charge of the tokens for the market, said food stamp customers normally spend $25 per visit.