Minnesota's farmers markets are reaching more low-income customers, but barriers remain.
Efforts to connect low-income Minnesotans with fresh produce appear to be making progress, with food stamp redemptions at farmers markets across the state jumping 234 percent this year.
"This is fabulous. This is exactly what we've been working together on as an organization," said Deonna Bouska, operations manager for the Minnesota Farmers Market Association.
Relatively low redemptions in dollar terms indicate, however, that Minnesota has a ways to go when compared with other Midwestern states.
According to recently released statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota had a bigger proportional increase in food stamp use at farmers markets than Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The number of Minnesota markets that redeem food stamps increased from 27 in 2010 to 44 this year.
But the amount redeemed was still second-lowest in the region, increasing from $20,007 to $66,652. In contrast, Michigan food stamp redemptions at farmers market totalled almost $1.1 million this year.
While food stamp use is not a new phenomenon at farmers markets, Minnesota's markets have suffered from a largely technical problem.
When the program -- officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- converted from paper vouchers to a credit card system a few years ago, most farmers markets were left out because they didn't have an electronic card reader.
Last spring, the farmers market association used a state grant to try to help seven markets overcome that technical challenge. It plans to help another new market next year.
Low-income Minnesotans also can buy food at farmers markets through a separate program called the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
That program, which serves low-income mothers, children and seniors, uses a paper voucher system that in 2010 resulted in more than $500,000 in purchases at markets.
Bloomington and Richfield were among the farmers markets that got card readers this year for the first time.
"It was a learning experience, but it went well," said Jim Urie, who supervises Bloomington's farmers market.
At the start, Bloomington's market had trouble getting the card reader running correctly and then had problems with Internet reception. Urie said the system was mostly out of commission for the market's first four Saturdays.
"By high season, we were doing 10 to 15 transactions a week, and we were happy with that," he said.
While the numbers were not as high as officials hoped, he said, discussions with officials at other farmers markets that had been using the electronic system for a while indicated that they had started out slow too.
Vendors, who accept tokens in food stamp transactions and have to wait for reimbursement, were open to the system, Urie said. They were enthusiastic in part because the card readers also could handle credit card transactions.
Next year, he said, "We're going to put a little more effort into marketing it. We didn't do a ton last year just because we were getting the system up and running."
Richfield also had technical problems early in the season; its system didn't run smoothly until July, said Cheryl Dragotis, farmers market manager.
Though the city placed ads about the food stamp program in local newspapers and put signs up near entrances and inside its two markets, not many people seemed to know that they could use food stamps there, she said.
Like Bloomington, Richfield will think about how to better advertise next year.
"We tried, but I don't think word got out to a lot of people," Dragotis said. "The people that did take advantage of it were very happy about it. Most vendors were happy, too, although one didn't understand it. ... It was a little bit of a learning curve for all of us."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan