Wholesome Wave EBT credit card

About 1,000 people of all income levels frequent the Statesboro Main Street Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

In the market’s rural six-county region of eastern Georgia, nearly one-fourth of residents live in poverty. Yet, the market tosses aside any wealthy-man stigma. Its partnership with Wholesome Wave Georgia gives low-income families affordable access to the market’s fresh-picked sweet corn, locally preserved jams, and farm-fresh eggs and meats.

At 21 partner markets like this one, every $1 in government nutrition benefits becomes $2 at the swipe of an Electronic Benefit (EBT) card, thanks to Wholesome Wave. The double-dollar incentive means more value for the shopper, farmer and local economy.

“This Wholesome Wave program is really needed to bring these folks in so that they have the same opportunities that other people have shopping at these markets,” says Debra Chester, chair of the Statesboro market. “I think sometimes people forget this is a large part of our population that has been underserved by farmers markets.”

Nineteen percent of Georgians live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Residents who qualify for nutrition aid can visit any certified market to use their benefits. However, the markets partnered with Wholesome Wave Georgia allow recipients to swipe their card at a central location and earn double tokens to buy food.

Nearly 130 farmers markets are spread across Georgia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While a higher concentration serves urban populations, the markets also operate in Georgia’s rural areas, says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

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“These community farmers markets help solve some of the issues of living in a food desert, places where access to fresh produce is not easily available,” Kulinski says. “Surprisingly this can be in rural areas where they grow a lot of produce.”

The Georgia Department of Agriculture supports all types of farmers markets. The department helps them navigate federal and local regulations, offers guidance for new markets, and provides marketing assistance to attract customers and vendors.

“I think the growth of the farmers market movement is so incredible, and Georgia’s really just getting into the depths of it,” says Lauren Carey, executive director of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Atlanta, the state’s largest market. “The energy you might see on the West Coast or the Northeast is really hitting Georgia now. I’m excited to see more people stepping out of the box store and into their farmers market.”

In its 2009 inaugural season, the state’s Wholesome Wave chapter partnered with three markets and used private funds and donations to double the value of $3,000 to $6,000. The program in 2013 secured 21 partner markets and expects to turn $170,000 into $340,000.

The Statesboro market joined in 2013. Within the first 11 Saturday mornings, 113 EBT customers had visited the market’s nearly 40 vendors and spent $3,849 on fresh food.

The Peachtree Road Farmers Market doubled $7,488 to $14,976 in 2012, Carey says. And just one-third of the way into its 2013 season, the market had already reached 47 percent of its 2012 amount.

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Atotal of about 3,000 consumers visit the market weekly to shop from 50 vendors, Carey says. The vendors offer only what they produce under the Georgia sun, from eggs, berries and peaches to Vidalia onions and watermelon. But that’s not all.

“People can come here and find multiple cheeses, certified organic beef and pork, pasture-raised poultry, Savannah shrimp and a wide variety of produce,” Carey says.

Doubling the dollars through Wholesome Wave means more low-income Georgia families can affordably move from the produce aisle to the farmers market scene, she says. And this food movement is a trend among all income categories.

“One reason people specifically come here is the variety, and shoppers want to be able to trust their products and buy local,” Carey says. “It’s one of the reasons this Wholesome Wave program is so powerful. It encourages you to buy locally grown and support local farmers.”

Find a full list of Wholesome Wave farmers markets here.

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