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Farmers markets' terminals ease sales

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Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

Pennsylvania began issuing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in 1998, changing the way thousands of Pennsylvanians provide food for their families.

Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, said although the switch to electronic cards is “generally positive,” the technology has drawbacks.

The cards require a machine to process them, which prevents farmers and farmers markets from accepting benefits. Before, they could trade in paper stamps at banks.

“Farmers with good, nutritious, affordable products could no longer accept food stamp benefits because they're electronic,” Regal said.

This year, Just Harvest and the City of Pittsburgh established the Fresh Access program, hosting terminals at six farmers markets in the city to essentially convert cards to cash. Using either SNAP benefits or debit cards, shoppers purchased tokens to exchange with farmers, who were reimbursed.

The program turned around nearly $40,000 in sales, Regal said, about half of which came from SNAP benefits and half from debit or credit card transactions.

In mid-October, Pennsylvania became one of more than a dozen states in which the electronic card system, operated by Xerox, malfunctioned for the better part of a day, keeping people from using benefits. In Louisiana, a computer malfunction gave cards no limits, triggering shopping sprees.

Such breakdowns don't happen often, but when they do, it can be disastrous, Regal said.

“The lesson is we should treat people on food stamps like we treat everybody else,” Regal said. “If this happened to everybody using a charge card at the grocery store, people would be up in arms.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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