Mainers who receive federally funded food assistance will be able to use their electronic benefit cards to buy produce at certain farmers markets and farm stands in Portland and Lewiston, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a side benefit, shoppers will be able to use their bank debit cards at the same markets, where many growers have accepted only cash, including Portland’s summer markets at Monument Square and Deering Oaks and its winter market at the Irish Heritage Center.

The USDA announced Tuesday that it has awarded a $300,000 grant to Cultivating Community, a nonprofit agency in Portland that promotes community development through agriculture training programs, especially for young people and immigrants.

“We wanted to make the markets accessible to all consumers,” said Craig Lapine, executive director of Cultivating Community, which sponsored 34 gardeners and farmers in and around Portland and Lewiston last year.

The $300,000 grant will be used, in part, to expand a program that equips agency-sponsored farm stands and markets with card-swipe machines so growers can accept electronic benefit cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program.

Kevin Concannon, U.S. undersecretary for food and nutrition, said the card-swipe program will help provide healthier food to some of the more than 129,000 households and nearly 252,000 individuals in Maine who get supplemental nutrition assistance — almost one-fifth of all Mainers.

“In the United States today, we’re almost addicted to prepared foods,” said Concannon, a former human services commissioner in Maine. “When foods are grown and sold locally, it helps people eat healthier and it encourages the local economy.”

Cultivating Community received one of 27 grants awarded through the Community Food Projects program, which distributed $4.8 million nationwide, Concannon said. The money went to programs that feed low-income people and increase self-reliance in low-income communities, among other goals.

Cultivating Community started the card-swipe program late last summer, in partnership with farmers market managers in Portland and Lewiston.

The agency set up a kiosk at each market where SNAP- and debit-card users could buy tokens to spend at individual growers’ stands. The growers turn in the tokens for cash reimbursement. According to La-pine, market managers said the kiosks have helped boost sales.

“For individual farmers, dealing with a swipe machine is kind of a pain in the neck,” he said. “This way, the market is the vendor, not the individual farmer.”

Tokens purchased with SNAP cards can be spent only on vegetables, fruits and other food products, Lapine said. Hot prepared foods and items such as crafts, cut flowers or potted flowering plants cannot be purchased with SNAP cards. Tokens purchased with bank debit cards can be spent on anything.

Card-swipe machines also may be used by growers who sell produce at certain urban neighborhood farm stands in Portland that are sponsored by Cultivating Community.

The winter farmers market at the Irish Heritage Center on Gray Street in Portland is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday, Lapine said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: kbouchard@pressherald.com