Families across the city who depend on food stamps will be able to use their benefit cards at all of the city's farmers markets and will receive a $2 coupon when they spend $5 on fruits and vegetables.
A growing demand for local farm-grown fruit and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods has generated enough interest to make it viable to use the wireless scanning devices needed to accept the benefit cards, said Robert A. Lewis, special assistant for market development at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
"Now there is an incentive by the farmers to use the EBTs [electronic benefits transfer] at their markets," said Lewis, who in 2000 started a pilot program for farmers to accept food stamps.
The EBT devices look like credit-card scanners. Shoppers will be able to swipe their cards and receive wooden-chip coins to use as currency at the markets. They'll receive a $2 coupon to buy more fruits and vegetables with each $5 spent. The "Health Bucks" program is available through November.
The number of farmers selling produce in low-income neighborhoods has increased. This year, farmers markets accepting food stamps and the coupons will more than double from 65 to 138.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the announcement Monday at the Union Square Green Market, which unveiled its EBT station for food-stamp recipients. Bloomberg said the coupon program will increase "the buying power" of food stamp recipients by 40 percent.
The program is expected to cost approximately $400,000, said Jean Weinberg, a spokeswoman with the city's Health Department.
Jean Cain, 66, of Harlem, who was shopping at the Union Square market, said the benefit program "should be real helpful." She said she likes shopping at the Union Square Green Market instead of the Harlem farmers market "because it has more variety."
However, she stopped at the $4-per-pound price tag for tomatoes.
Karen Washington of the Bronx, a community garden pioneer who grows herbs and tomatoes in her neighborhood, has built a nine-year partnership with Rottkamp Farms in Old Brookville, which brings fresh produce to Tremont Park and has been participating in the food stamp and coupon programs for several years.
"It's been very successful," said Washington. "These farmers that come to us are unique. They believe that what they are growing should go to the people who need it, and that healthy, nutritious food is a right and not a privilege."
Washington said she hopes that next year the coupon's value will be increased to $4.
Bloomberg said: "A critical component to fighting obesity is to make sure all New Yorkers have access to fresh produce, and the expansion of this program will help even more low-income New Yorkers."