By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – Sarah Monte says that everyone should have access to fresh and nutritious food. But only 30 out of 200 farmers markets in Michigan currently accept Bridge cards, making it more difficult for those who rely on government-funded food programs to have easy access to the freshest high-quality food.
Bridge cards are Michigan’s form of an electronic benefit transfer, a federally-mandated system for food assistance. The card operates like a debit card.
Monte, who is the market master for the Marquette Farmers Market, said that markets offer many advantages over traditional grocery stores.
“Farmers markets have fresher food,” she said. “You’re able to meet the person who grew the food and you get the atmosphere of the market. It’s an all-around better experience.
“Most of the time, it’s better-quality food,” she said. “You’re getting more nutrition and more flavor for your dollar.”
But those advantages are out of reach for many Bridge card users if their local farmers market doesn’t accept them.
Cost is the biggest obstacle, according to Amanda Segar, coordinator of the Michigan Farmers Market Food Assistance Partnership.
“The machine used to swipe the cards can be quite pricey, and so can the alternative redemption system,” she said.
Alternative redemption systems make it more convenient for shoppers and vendors, Segar said.
“When a customer comes to a farmers market, they go to the center location like the booth or office and decide how much they want to spend,” she said. “Then their card is swiped for that amount, and in return they receive tokens or paper that work like currency.
“They can go to any booth and exchange it just like money,” she said.
At the end of the day, Segar explained, vendors can redeem the tokens or paper for payment.
Toni Brown, the former market master of the Cheboygan City Market, attended a seminar to learn more about Bridge cards. But the requirements to accept them overwhelmed what her small market could handle.
“We would have had to pay for our own phone line for the card machine, pay for the machine and pay for the electricity,” she said.
“We operate out of a public parking lot in the city that we’re allowed to use for free,” she said. “We would have had to get permission from the city and from the phone company to establish a line there. Where are we going to have a phone line in the middle of a public parking lot?”
Segar said that using the card also requires additional staff labor, something that markets are already short on.
“A lot of markets are run by volunteer market managers or even a paid market manager, and dealing with the paperwork of a Bridge card system is just another component on top of a lot of responsibilities they already have,” she said.
Although Bridge cards may lure more shoppers to farmers markets, Segar said that the increase in sales rarely compensates for the extra cost.
“Sales don’t usually equate to market funding,” she said. “Sales might be an enticement for more vendors to come and it might generate more income, but not necessarily.”
A principal reason for accepting Bridge cards, despite such obstacles, is a desire to help local residents, Segar said.
“It’s a motivation to serve their community and members in it, and it’s also a service to their vendors,” she said.
But Brown, with the Cheboygan market, said that Bridge cards may be too complicated.
“When you’re an open market, like we are, using a simpler system is much, much better,” she said.
Monte, with the Marquette Farmers Market, said that her market accepts Bridge cards to promote equal access.
“I suppose it’s more paperwork,” she said. “But to me it’s such an important part of the market that I can’t imagine not wanting to do it.
“We believe that anyone, no matter their position or income, deserves a chance to have fresh food and good food,” she said. “We get a lot more people every year as more people are realizing that we take Bridge cards.”
For the same reasons, Monte said, more markets should accept them.
“It’s good for the farmers, too,” she said. “The more business we can get for them, the better it is for local farming networks.”
Segar said that her organization encourages more markets to join Monte’s.
She said the program has received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to provide technical and financial assistance and support to farmers markets to deal with the costs of handling Bridge cards.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.