May 27, 2004

Cards

Electronics Benefits Card

May 26, 2004 E-mail story Print

FARMERS MARKETS / SHOPPING
Electronic benefits card takes the stress out of buying fresh
The debit-type card, which is replacing food stamps, eases recipients' access to local produce.


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By Valli Herman, Times Staff Writer


Vendors and managers at 22 Los Angeles County farmers markets began posting fliers and wearing buttons last week to promote the use of the electronic benefits transfer card, or EBT, a new debit-type card that is being phased in to replace paper food stamps.

The awareness campaign is part of a statewide effort to promote EBT use and nutrition education in populations with high rates of nutrition-related diseases.

"We know that families in poor neighborhoods throughout L.A. County often have trouble buying fresh fruits and vegetables because of a lack of grocery stores," said Pompea Smith, director of the Hollywood Farmers Market and chief executive of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, a nonprofit corporation that promotes fresh food access and healthy eating.

The EBT card, also known as the Golden State Advantage Card, can be used at L.A. markets that two months ago were equipped with hand-held wireless card readers. To use the new system, cardholders must locate the market manager or central administration booth, swipe their cards in the device and enter an amount of money that they wish to redeem. In return, they will receive tokens, scrip or coupons good only at that market for edible products.

"An EBT card is just like a debit card," said Smith, who wore an EBT button at the Hollywood Farmers Market on Sunday. "It removes somewhat the stigma of what are recognized as food stamps."

In March, L.A. County became one of the largest, and last, counties in California to abandon food stamps in favor of the electronic system. The move away from paper food stamps began in the 1990s, encountering many hurdles as administrators phased in the new system. Before implementation of the EBT program, farmers markets accepted only cash and paper food stamps, in part because most markets are without electricity or telephone wires needed for processing electronic transactions. The state's Department of Social Services provided the wireless point-of-sale devices and waived transaction fees for the EBT cards.

Despite the fact that the program offers vendors and market managers some incentives to adopt the new technology (vendors can apply EBT receipts against their stall fees), a majority of markets remain unequipped to process the cards because managers consider implementation unfeasible. Food stamp use at their markets is nominal, they say, often well under $100 a day too insignificant to outweigh administration expenses.

However, markets that adopt the technology now help pave the way to accepting all types of electronic banking, including debit and credit cards.

"We could look into [debit and credit cards] in the future," said Smith. "That would make this system more efficient to run."

The EBT cards represent another step in the evolution of L.A. farmers markets, said Dale Whitney, manager of the five Harbor Area farmers markets that accept the EBT cards. He noted that farmers markets were established in the inner city after the 1965 Watts riots destroyed many food stores.

"People didn't have access to fruits and vegetables, so the first markets were located in the neighborhoods where the people could easily get to them," Whitney said.

"Now the markets have become more upscale."

Farmers markets have the potential to resume serving thousands of low-income patrons.

The California Department of Health Services estimates that 55% of eligible L.A. county households don't receive food assistance.

Electronic benefits card takes the stress out of buying fresh

Posted by Craig at May 27, 2004 07:43 PM