The colorful Midtown Farmers Market in south Minneapolis faced an uncertain future last year when its Minneapolis Public School location was poised for redevelopment. The happy news, announced by the school district in April, is that the market at 2225 E. Lake St. will become a permanent fixture in that redevelopment.

Smart move. Anybody who has strolled its olfactory-overloaded aisles knows that this is a little market with big ideas. Midtown is the only Twin Cities farmers market accepting SNAP/EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), formerly called food stamps. In 2009, it had the audacity to believe it would be voted Best Market in the United States, competing against more than 5,000 others in online voting. Its fourth-place finish was hardly chopped liver.

Midtown is at it again, this time as one of a few markets nationwide encouraging EBT users to eat well by offering an incentive. For the first $5 an EBT user spends at the market on anything from beets to broccoli to bok choy, he or she will get an additional $5 in Market Bucks. In other words, $10 in produce for the first $5 spent.

Unlike a grocery store, where the best bargains usually are found in the potato chip aisle, $10 can buy bags of healthful market produce. On Tuesday, vendors offered carrots for $1 a bunch, trays of taters for $3, robust broccoli stalks for $3, and onions, herbs and huge heads of lettuce for $2 each. The challenge is to get the word out.

"Many EBT users don't think it's affordable [to shop at a farmers market]," said Marc Manley, M.D., chief prevention officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. "But, particularly with foods in season, it's very economical to shop there."

Blue Cross is funding the Market Bucks pilot, using proceeds from its 1998 Big Tobacco settlement. The effort is one of many created by Blue Cross (think "Do" campaign) to get all Minnesotans to eat better and fight rising obesity rates. According to a recent Blue Cross report, only 15 percent of Minnesota adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables daily.

Word about Market Bucks is spreading through advertising and word-of-mouth. The market, known for cooking demonstrations, live music, children's activities and its Magic Bus Cafe, processed 13 EBT transactions in the first two days this season. That's compared with 15 EBT transactions during the entire month of June last year when no incentive was offered.

"People are surprised and delighted with the match," said Amy Behrens, interim market manager. "Several have come back to shop."

One mother trying to eat more healthfully on a limited budget used her extra $5 to buy leeks and cheese, which her 11-year-old later tossed together to make a delicious dish. To repeat, an 11-year-old was 1) cooking and 2) eating leeks.

The Midtown Farmers Market has accepted EBT since 2006, among the nearly 18 percent of the nation's farmers markets authorized to do so. The Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue and the Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market will also accept EBT this summer.

Only a tiny number offer incentives. New York City gives shoppers a $2 Health Buck coupon for every $5 spent using EBT. In Oregon, EBT customers are offered a dollar-to-dollar match, up to $5, on select Sundays. While healthful eating is good for customers, it's good for farmers, too. It brings new and often loyal customers to their booths throughout the summer.

In Oregon, for example, EBT spending was sustained "significantly" after the promotion ended, its sponsors said.

Midtown vendor Jamie Lee, 18, is happy to see Market Bucks added to the mix. "It's like free money," said Lee, standing under a tent to escape the oppressive sun on Tuesday afternoon. "Customers are very excited."

As is Amy Arcand, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, which operates the market. "We've always thought of this as making our farmers market accessible to all the people who live in our diverse community," she said. Others have easy access via light rail.

"If people in our community are on SNAP/EBT, we want to make sure they are not left out of shopping here," Arcand said. "This is a natural place for people of all cultures and all income levels to gather. It transcends so many barriers."

(The market is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through October.)

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •