Food Stamps Increasingly Deployed at Greenmarkets

More New Yorkers on food stamps are using them to buy fresh produce, eggs and baked goods at city greenmarkets.

From 2010 to 2011, use of food stamps at greenmarkets increased from a little more than $505,000 to $620,000 — a gain of 23 percent.

That’s still a drop in the bucket, in a city where millions of people spend billions of dollars worth of food stamps every year. But City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who led efforts to make city farmer's markets accept food stamps, said it’s a step in the right direction.

“It means that low-income people who get food stamps are using them to buy high-quality fruits and vegetables at low cost,” she said. “When we started this in 2007, we were talking about thousands of dollars — like three or four thousand — being spent in greenmarkets. Now we’re well over a half-million dollars, and my goal is to get that over a million dollars as soon as possible.”

Local food stamp users spend about $2.7 billion dollars a year between, 2008 and 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Nationally, low-income Americans spent about .01 percent of their food stamps in greenmarkets — a similar percentage to the one achieved last year — according to the USDA. Most people use them in supermarkets, superstores, corner groceries and convenience stores.

The city last year spent $270,000 on advertising to promote food stamp purchases at greenmarkets, and another $200,000 on its “Health Bucks” program, a subsidy that amplifies the buying power of food stamps.

There are intrinsic limits to how much food people can get at greenmarkets, said Joel Berg, of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, because they’re seasonal, occur weekly in communities and only offer one segment of what people need to feed their families. But Berg thinks greenmarkets play an important role, alongside other kinds of food retailers.

“Hunger, malnutrition, obesity are complex problems, and they need a complex response,” Berg said. “If this becomes more successful, and more low-income neighborhoods have greenmarkets that accept food stamps, there’s no question that they can help fill that unmet need for fresh fruits and vegetables, at least during the growing season.”