GREENSBORO — With the 10 tokens in hand from using her EBT card at the registration table, Deloris Williams made her way to a pickup truck at the edge of the Grove Street People’s Market that was overflowing with cucumbers, corn still in their husks and bags of peaches from North Carolina farmers.
“Ohhhh, those look good,” Williams said as she got closer to a bale of squash.
Nationally, low-income customers like Williams spent $24.4 million of their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — more commonly known as SNAP — last year on fresh produce, eggs and baked goods at local farmers markets like this one in the Glenwood neighborhood, where they get $10 credit for every $10 they spend to double their buying power.
“It helps them out and it helps us out — especially if you are a savvy shopper,” said Nicole Saleem, another shopper at the market, as she browsed the offerings for sale.
There was a bit of celebration in the air Thursday night — even beyond the guitar and fiddler trio set up among the vendors — due to a 30-day reprieve that could have prevented more than 1,700 farmers markets nationwide, including the ones at Grove Street and its sister market, the Corner Farmers Market in the Lindley Park neighborhood, from being able to accept EBT cards after July 31.
For farmers markets to accept EBT cards, they must be able to process the transaction — just as a grocery store would. Because many markets don’t have access to electricity and/or the Internet, vendors need to use cell phones — and that typically means involving a third party.
Enter Novo Dia Group, which provides the technology and processing software for a significant portion of those markets. The Texas company dropped a bombshell recently when it announced plans to stop offering their service after losing a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program.
“The ability to take SNAP is at the heart of what we do,” said volunteer Liz Seymour, who used her iPhone on Thursday to process EBT payments. “The national figures on how quickly SNAP spending at farmers markets has grown is really impressive. To make that more difficult is really counter-productive when we are so aware of hunger and the need for access to fresh, healthy food.”
The farmers and vendors have come to count on the income as well, she said.
“Every dollar that’s spent here goes to a small business,” Seymour said.
April Semien, set up under a small tent, didn’t know her vegan pre-packaged products qualified for the SNAP program before she starting selling them at local farmers markets, where she is known as Chef April.
“I’m retired and this is all I do,” Semien said. “I have a lot of clients who use EBT and I depend on them.”
Farmer Harold Williams looks forward to these Thursdays. So do his customers.
“They say they’re glad I’m here,” Williams said.
It was earlier this month when Novo Dia made the announcement.
“Switching over is not as simple as switching from Sprint to Verizon,” Seymour said.
When they first heard about the decision, officials with the Glenwood and Lindley Park markets put together a contingency plan that would give a $10 credit to shoppers even though they couldn’t use their EBT card.
“Both markets operate on a shoestring,” Corner Market coordinator Kathy Newsom explained.
While the majority of shoppers range in income, they share a bond when they stop at a farmers market, Newsom said.
“The misconception is that people who are poor eat convenience-store food because they don’t know better,” Newsom said. “That’s not true. It’s often all they can get to. People know what good food is. People don’t need the education, they just need the access.”
An announcement was made right before vendors set up in Glenwood on Thursday that the National Association of Farmer’s Market Nutrition Programs would give Novo Dia funding to continue processing SNAP benefits an additional month — possibly enough time to resolve the issues.
Word got around Thursday about the reprieve as shoppers flowed through the corner lot at the Grove Street and Glenwood Avenue intersection.
Some of the buyers had come looking for the “plant lady,” who sells tomato and other food-bearing plants — which also qualify under the federal government food program.
Others were browsing.
“I can just see a tomato sandwich on toast,” said market volunteer Shante Woody, while peering over a bushel of tomatoes and broadcasting what she came across using a Facebook Live app.
Woody, a vendor whose cake slices draw steady traffic, also uses the SNAP program.
“It helps me and my family a lot,” said Woody, who explained that she’s been able to try out healthier options with her children. She once used the extra credit to buy from a vendor selling vegetable samosas, which her children now love.
Seymour and Newsom say those are the kinds of stories that have a lot of people wanting to find a permanent fix for processing the EBT transactions.
“The solutions that are out there are expensive,” Newsom said. “That’s just not how we want to spend our money.”
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.