Portland’s farmers markets will begin accepting credit cards, debit cards and food stamp benefit cards on Aug. 3.

The cards can be used at the Monument Square market on Wednesdays, the market in Deering Oaks park on Saturdays and at the winter market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center.

A new information booth will be set up at each market to process the cards, which can be used to buy $1 and $5 “Market Money” tokens. The wooden tokens have no expiration date.

“It’s something that the farmers have been talking about for the past couple of years,” said Jaime Berhanu of Lalibela Farm in Bowdoinham. “There are probably already five or six of us who take food stamps, and just maybe two or three that do credit cards. It’s one of these things that’s been on the long-term goal list.”

Many smaller farmers markets in Maine already offer similar services — including ones in Lewiston, Gardiner, Bangor, Sanford, North Berwick and Skowhegan — but some of them use paper script instead of tokens.

The Portland program was developed over the past year during several meetings of a new market association formed by the farmers. The association was assisted by the Healthy Portland program and Cultivating Community, a local nonprofit that grows food for the hungry and has used a similar system at its food stands.

Berhanu said nearly all of the market’s 40 vendors will participate. Some farmers can’t accept payments in food stamps — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — because they don’t sell food or food-producing plants.

Initial funding for the project — a couple of thousand dollars — came from a federal anti-obesity grant, said Tim Fuller of Healthy Portland.

“Everybody should have access to fresh, locally produced healthy food. We’re increasing access for low-income folks. We’re actually increasing access for everyone, and that’s a good thing,” Fuller said. “On the other side of it,” he said, “this also has economic impacts that could be significant. There’s a large amount of food assistance dollars that come in the form of SNAP benefits, and if those are used at farmers markets, we’re supporting our local farm economy and keeping some of that money here within our local area and the state.”

SNAP tokens will be green, and the credit/debit tokens will be black. Customers will not be able to get cash back from the SNAP tokens.”You could buy everything you need for a meal at the market using food stamps,” Berhanu said. “This year we have a number of new vendors, and there’s some new products at the market in the last two years that haven’t been there, ever, before — things like different kinds of meat. There’s cheese and more eggs, there’s milk and yogurt, flour and oats.”

Berhanu said SNAP recipients will also be able to use their tokens to buy vegetable seedlings or plants that bear food, and that “will hopefully encourage people to try growing some food for themselves.”

Although the formal launch isn’t until Aug. 3, the market will have an unofficial “soft opening” of the program this Saturday in Deering Oaks.

“The farmers are really excited for the market to be more accessible to a wider part of the community,” Berhanu said. “We’re hoping that more people come to the market that don’t usually shop there.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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