Rutherford County Farmers Market patrons will be able to pay with plastic, as well as cash, come spring. (File photo)
Beginning in May, local residents will have easier access to locally grown and fresh produce, thanks to an $85,000 grant given to the Rutherford County Farmers’ Market.
Supplied by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Promotion Program and through a new partnership with MTSU’s School of Agribusiness/Agriscience, the Rutherford County Farmers’ Market will be accepting Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) payments.
EBT payments include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. Additionally, credit card and debit card payments will be accepted.
Dubbed the Grow Healthy Rutherford Initiative, this collaboration contains many features aimed at encouraging healthy eating and shopping for food locally.
This project was developed in response to the growing number of SNAP participants in the county and because the heart of Murfreesboro was recently designated a large “food desert,” according to a news release. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of Rutherford County residents receiving SNAP benefits increased by nearly 90 percent, with 38,498 individual recipients in September of last year.
“A food desert can be described as an area with low or limited access to full-sized grocery stores,” the release continues. “This can limit inhabitants’ intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products, and other items that make up a healthy diet.”
A food desert of more than 17,000 residents lies in central Murfreesboro in the area east of Memorial Boulevard, north of Vine Street, south of DeJarnette Lane, and west of Twin Oaks Drive.
“This is a huge area of Murfreesboro that doesn’t have convenient access to grocery stores with fresh produce,” Farmers’ Market manager and Master Gardener coordinator Janie Becker explained.
“When you don’t have access, you’re doing shopping from convenience stores and from places that have more highly-processed, less healthy foods.”
With rising regional and national obesity rates, access to healthy foods is possibly more important than ever, and the link between EBT-recipients and obesity rates can no longer be ignored.
“This is the first Farmers’ Market in Rutherford County to accept EBT, and we are a producer-only market, so this is the most direct avenue for EBT recipients to purchase directly from their farmers and get the freshest food possible,” Becker continued. “EBT recipients should be able to have a direct relationship with their farmers, like everyone else in the community.”
Located at the Lane Agri-Park Community Center on John R. Rice Boulevard in Murfreesboro, the Farmers’ Market provides a variety of options naturally ripened fruits and vegetables that are chock-full of vitamins and nutrients, many of which can be lost during a two-week shipment or by ripening produce artificially.
In addition to allowing the RCFM to accept a variety of payment forms, Grow Healthy Rutherford will include a broad promotional campaign, cooking demonstrations at the RCFM, a shuttle to the Market from low-income areas in the Murfreesboro downtown area, education for farmers and consumers, and a study of the impact of these efforts by MTSU students and staff. The two-year grant aims at building sustainability.
“The funds will help get the EBT program off the ground and hopefully open up new marketing channels for the Farmers’ Market with MTSU’s Agribusiness department,” Becker said.
During her research of the grant, Becker was approached by MTSU about the possibility of a partnership.
“It was a perfect collaboration of using their research abilities with our on-the-ground Market,” she said.
She explained how students will devise marketing ideas -- how to reach the public and the producers and measure success -- as part of their class work. Interns will actively participate in the Market from May through October.
Because the Market will only be equipped with one processing machine, shoppers and vendors will use a token system to exchange for goods.
Debit, credit and EBT card customers will receive wooden tokens that can be used for nearly all of the products at the Market.
“Wooden tokens will be printed with denominations and function as money only within this market,” Becker continued. “Scrip for EBT will look different from the scrip for debit/credit transactions because it can be used for limited things, and you can’t receive change from EBT tokens.”
EBT customers cannot purchase pet foods, soaps, cosmetics or prepared food to an extent.
“We don’t offer anything that is explicity made to eat on-site -- no pizza vendors, hot dog vendors or fresh hot biscuits,” Becker said.
“However, EBT can be used for plants from which produce will be grown. They can buy a tomato plant, but not an aloe vera plant or a petunia.”
Funding from the grant will also be used for workshops and training for vendors and customers to learn the new system.
Nearly 150 farm-to-consumer marketing projects received funding last October, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, marking a $9.2 million investment to support direct marketing and to increase consumer access to healthy food, much of it in food deserts and other low-income areas.
Traditionally, FMPP has funded projects in both rural and urban areas, according to the USDA. However, this year saw a shift toward a more even distribution, with urban projects growing to nearly half of the portfolio.
“In addition to funding many worthy start-up farmers markets, I was particularly pleased to note a rise in the number of innovative projects like those that create or expand community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism, and mobile markets,” Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said.
Operated by the University of Tennessee/Tennessee State University Extension, the Farmers’ Market was founded in 1975 and is managed and supported by Rutherford County Extension.
Contact Janie Becker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-898-7710 for more information.