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Jamaica farmers market lures food stamp recipients

Shoppers peruse the offerings at the Jamaica farmers market. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

Amid a heated debate in Washington over food stamps, the Jamaica farmers market opened last week with an eye toward getting those on public assistance to think about the value of fresh produce.

Down to Earth Markets, the company that runs the Jamaica site, said its vendors throughout the city and the Hudson River Valley report that anywhere from 65 percent to 95 percent of their income comes from public food assistance.

“The majority of our customers use either EBT or WIC checks,” said market manager Ashley Robinson, adding it takes some convincing to get people to understand why they should spend their public assistance dollars on fresh food.

“People here need to know why it’s worth it to shop here,” she said. “No. 1, it tastes better.”

The market, which will be open Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 30, is on 160th Street off Jamaica Avenue.

The Greater Jamaica Development Corp., which sponsors the market every year, is providing an hour of free parking for market shoppers in its garage at 90-15 Parsons Blvd.

“GJDC is a community-building organization, and the farmers market has played an essential role in the revitalization of the downtown,” said GJDC President Carlisle Towery. “The availability of fresh fruit, produce and other farm products has become an essential amenity to thriving neighborhoods all across the city — no less so in this increasingly attractive, mixed-income, multi-ethnic community.”

The federal food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was facing more than $20 billion in cuts in the federal farm bill that was shot down by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month.

The current farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30, and it was not clear if the bitterly divided Congress would come together on a new bill or pass an extension like it did in 2008.

In addition to accepting SNAP benefits, the Jamaica market is participating in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fresh Connect Food Box Program, which covers the administrative costs of providing pre-packed boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to those in low-income households.

Cuomo’s Fresh Connect initiative also provides $2 checks for every $5 in SNAP benefits spent at participating markets.

Public Health Solutions, which is one of four nonprofits across the state to participate in the pilot program, is sort of a one-stop shop for those looking to figure out how best to spend their public assistance money.

“Most people don’t realize just how much they can get for that check,” said Erika Eitland, Public Health Solution’s food box coordinator.

One of the vendors, Alex’s Tomato Farm, accepts the $4 New York state farmers market checks provided to those who receive assistance under the federal Women, Infants and Children program.

Tatyana Kravets, who runs the stand, said she pays close attention to the debates in Washington, and lamented cuts to the WIC program two years ago.

“Less and less people have their WIC checks,” she said. “It very much affects us.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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