MANATEE -- Produce vendors across Manatee County are implementing new technology to accept electronic food-stamps cards as payment, a program they hope will lift revenues for the coming season.
Farmers markets across Southwest Florida have begun applying for free equipment that will allow them to handle purchases through an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which is used by consumers who receive federal benefits including food and cash assistance.
The program was designed to sprout new sales for growers, stimulating the local economy while providing low-income families with healthier options than what's offered at the corner grocer.
And so far, local markets have taken to the idea.
"If it facilitates people's ability to spend, we will welcome it," said Dan Shepard, general manager and co-owner of the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, which hosts eight produce vendors. "It's something our vendors are actively exploring."
Farmers markets have historically reported difficulties redeeming food assistance benefits due to limited access to phone lines and electricity.
But a new Florida Department of Children and Families grant will help 100 farmers markets in the Sunshine State begin accepting federal benefits through $78,749 worth of free wireless EBT card readers.
Farmers markets in Manatee and Sarasota have spent the past year researching the plan. Although none currently accept EBT payments, many hope to have a system up and running by the start of the fall season.
Norman Whitlow, who owns the Greens on the Gro farm in Ellenton, received approval by the state in June to begin processing EBT payments.
Whitlow is a vendor at the Manatee County Health Department farmers market each Wednesday. He also operates a booth at the downtown Bradenton farmers market and mans a retail stand at his farm on Ellenton Gillette Road.
He believes the program will increase revenues by as much as 30 percent this year.
"Times are still pretty hard," Whitlow said. "We have been talking with a lot of people and found out many are on food stamps. They don't shop much at farmers markets because they need their cash for other things."
Florida is providing wireless equipment to multi-stall farmers markets that are not already accepting EBT cards.
There is no monthly fee for food assistance transactions, and the farmers
markets also can use the equipment to process regular debit and credit card transactions, although fees would be tacked on to those instances, according to the state.
The grant is part of $4 million in funding nationwide to encourage farmers markets to make EBT transactions available. There are now more than 1,500 farmers markets in the U.S. using EBT technology.
Since 2008, food assistance sales at farmers markets have risen by 400 percent, according to DCF.
The Bradenton farmers market dedicated an intern to research options and apply for the grant. But the platform is not likely to be ready for the start of the season Oct. 6, said Kevin Webb, the market's manager.
Webb said the farmers market will provide a centralized EBT payment center, which consumers could use to obtain credits for spending at vendor booths. Those vendors could then be reimbursed by the market for the transactions.
The Sarasota farmers market also is vetting the program, with hopes to have a system in place later this year.
"There's a lot of middle-class families receiving federal help, it's not just people off the streets," said Phil Pagano, operations manager for the Sarasota farmers market. "With the economy the way it is, it's affecting a lot of people."
Proponents of local agriculture praised the program for providing healthier options for consumers, while also boosting the local economy.
The average food item in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the plate. The trend is no different in Manatee, where farmers estimate 95 percent of the crops they grow are shipped out of Florida.
But if all consumers purchased just 5 percent of their groceries from a local source, an additional $40 million would be pumped into the U.S. economy each year, according to the local nonprofit Transition Sarasota.
"This will help in so many ways -- socially, economically and health wise," said John Matthews, founder of Suncoast Food Alliance, which connects restaurants with area growers. "I can't wait to tell people about it."
Venders too are anxious to see the equipment in action.
They see it as the next step in the progression of farmers markets both locally and nationwide.
"It really is a good idea," said Otoniel Betoncourt, who operates Farm Fresh Produce at the flea market. "Right now we just can't accept anything like that."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman