COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Advocates for fresh, locally grown foods are promoting a pilot project in Columbia that allows people using food stamps to double the amount of food they can buy at a farmers market.
Currently, only a few people are participating in the training phase of the project, but organizers hope to expand it to more food stamp recipients in March.
When Stephanie McGuire used her EBT card on Saturday at the Columbia Farmers Market, she asked for $24 worth of wooden tokens, which are redeemable as cash at the market's stalls. Instead, she was given $48.
"Everything here is so amazing," McGuire said while toting a bag of butternut squash, acorn squash and potatoes. "We never realized how big the farmers market is and how bountiful it is, really."
Casey Corbin, executive director of Sustainable Farms and Communities Inc., said the project is designed to give people on a fixed budget access to locally grown produce, meats and dairy. Many of those foods are more expensive than those in supermarkets, and food stamp recipients typically can't pay for the healthier foods.
"It's like walking through the market and everything's 50 percent off," Corbin said. "And some vendors have already pledged to offer further discounts for people with the cards."
The program will officially launch in March. Organizers hope to raise $50,000 to fully fund it, making it available to all Columbia food stamp recipients.
Congress created the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for WIC participants in 1992 and expanded the benefits to low-income seniors in 2000. However, those programs typically max out at $30 per recipient per year.
In 2008, a Connecticut-based private organization called Wholesome Wave doubled food stamps used at participating markets, and that program has been successfully implemented at dozens of markets across the nation.
The project includes classes in local churches to teach basic food safety and recipes.
"One of the big concerns in our community meetings was, "What good is it to have great access to healthy foods you can afford, when most people who have been living off frozen foods from Sam's Club don't know how to cook anymore?'" Corbin said.
McGuire, who works part time as a breast-feeding peer counselor, said the market has exposed her daughters to new foods.
On Saturday, her 3-year-old, Rhiannon, excitedly walked from stall to stall.
"I think she's tried a lot of things here that she wouldn't normally, because a lot of the sellers here will hand you pieces of different kinds of vegetables just as samples," McGuire said.