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Plastic at Farmers Market means more Islanders can shop there

Thanks to a recent grant, people who receive food stamps will be able to shop at Vashon’s thriving Farmers Market beginning this weekend.

The program will also enable people using debit and credit cards to purchase food and other items at the market — a move that is expected to boost sales, as well.

“The whole goal was to make local nutritious food more available,” said Merilee Runyan, a lavender grower and member of the Vashon Island Grower’s Association (VIGA).

Markets that take electronic cards usually show an increase in sales of 10 to 30 percent, Runyan said, and she thinks a similar increase is likely on Vashon.

The heart of the program, though, is about making nutrient-rich, locally grown food accessible to people who shop with food stamps or, as they are called now, electronic benefit cards (EBTs). On Vashon in January there were 130 food stamp clients — a client may be an individual or a family — and that number is likely higher now, according to Runyan.

While many people recognize the nutritional value of food from a farmers market, some find them expensive places to shop, making buying food there a challenge for people with food stamps — as well as many other people trying to live within their means during this challenging economic time.

To that end, VIGA has plans to show people some bargains at the market and how to to make the most out of their dollars.

Farmer Karen Biondo will offer shopping tours of the market and cooking demonstrations one Saturday in May and June to highlight what people can make with low-cost produce. The group will walk the market and shop together, stopping for the best deals along the way.

And there are deals. After all, Runyan noted, you can make a delicious pot of soup from one squash, an onion and some spices. There will also be recipes available for people to get ideas on how best to use local produce on a budget.

In June, Runyan will offer a class during market hours on how to plant a vegetable garden in a container. She will distribute containers that day, and people who attend will leave with their potted plant, ready to take home and flourish.

“The goal is to improve the quality of food people eat,” Runyan added.

Runyan and other VIGA members are doing outreach to the community to let people know of this new market service. They will share the market information with the Island’s representative from the Department of Social and Health Services and have created a flier to be distributed at the food bank and around town.

Taking plastic payments is not cheap; this two-year program was made possible through a grant from the Washington State Farmers Market Association.

In 2008, the Legislature passed the Local Farms — Healthy Kids Initiative. It provided $50,000 for the farmers market association to help its 114 member markets develop the capacity to take EBTs, according to Runyan. Only 20 markets were selected to be part of the program.

“We are thrilled Vashon is one of them,” she said.

The $2,100 grant covers the cost of the card-processing machine and provides funds for promoting the program in the community.

Many volunteers are contributing to this new program, said Runyan, who wrote the grant and coordinates the project. Lindsay Hart, Barbara Stratton and Sarah Lowry will help staff the market tent and work on outreach, and Market Manager Joanne Jewell has helped in many ways as well.

“I am so excited about the first day,” Runyan said. “I can hardly wait to meet the new people who come to the market because of this program.”

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