PORTLAND, Ore. – Despite widespread efforts to attract low-income shoppers, farmers' markets have had limited success in drawing people like Bishop Reed, who in the past three years has lost his job and his home.
Reed signed up for food stamps six months ago and uses them to buy groceries for himself, his teenage daughter and a niece at either a local grocery chain or one of the discount stores.
"What is a farmers' market?" asked Reed, a Portland-area resident, when told he could use his benefits there as well.
About one-fourth of the nation's 6,000 or so farmers' markets accept food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. But the bulk of SNAP benefits redeemed last year — 82 percent — went to grocery stores and supercenters. Less than 0.01 percent was spent at farmers' markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although organizers have opened markets in a wider array of neighborhoods and changed their marketing tactics to reach low-income residents, many food stamps users still don't know they can shop at the markets, lack transportation or time to get to them or simply believe they can spend their benefits better elsewhere.
Advocates say the issue is important because one in eight Americans now receives food stamps, and low-income communities often have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems made worse without access to fresh, healthy foods.
"It is the best place to spend the (money)," said Anna Curtin, education and outreach specialist for the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon. "It benefits users, it benefits the farmer, it benefits the larger community. And it is the freshest, healthiest food you can buy."
Kevin Mansfield, 51, of Portland, is on disability and hasn't worked in several years. He laughed at the idea of visiting a farmers market, although there is one nearby, because his food stamps add up to only $16 a month. He combines them with his daughter's benefits to do the family's shopping.
"I try to get vegetables, but I don't get fruit because it's so blasted expensive," Mansfield said.
Market organizers have tried a number of ways overcome the hurdles low-income shoppers face, including setting up bus service through nearby neighborhoods, working with local food banks and employment offices to increase awareness and providing matching dollar programs to help stretch the benefits further.
Elizabeth Luna, 58, had been shopping at Detroit's Eastern Market regularly for 39 years. But when she lost her job in accounting last year, she stopped.
She returned after she began receiving food stamps and learned how to use them there. SNAP benefits are administered through an electronic debit system that works much like a debit card. At some markets like Detroit's, shoppers use their SNAP card to buy tokens that can be spent at farmers' stands.
Luna recently used $20 of benefits to buy $40 worth of tokens with the help of a matching dollar program. She bought fruit and vegetables and saved some of her tokens for the next week.
"I've always eaten fresh fruits and vegetables," Luna said. "When I buy vegetables from here and I put them in my refrigerator, they last two weeks. When I buy them from the store, they go bad sooner."
Farmers' market leaders acknowledged barriers remain for low-income shoppers. Many markets lack staff or technology to accept SNAP's electronic payments or they don't have the money for matching dollar programs.
They also said there's an image issue to overcome: They need to show shoppers that farmers' markets aren't just a destination for foodies hoping to load up on heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese.
Prices at most farmers' markets are competitive, some shoppers and market organizers said, although those in urban or affluent areas tend to be higher.
Many farmers' markets have tried to help users with matching dollar programs.
SNAP spending tripled at King Portland Farmers' Market in Oregon after it introduced a program that matched the first $5 users spent in food stamps. The program was paid for by local businesses and individual donations.
Some farmers offer special discounts as well, such as Alan Rousseau, owner of Pine Mountain Ranch in Central Oregon, who sells meat at markets around the state. Pine Mountain offers a 10 percent discount at King Market. Rousseau said he makes less money on sales there, but he's gained customers and it's the right thing to do.
"We help people during tough times and during good times they'll come back," he said. "And not just that, but it's about giving back to the community."
Associated Press Writer David Runk reported from Detroit.