It’s Saturday morning and despite the rain, a handful of merchants chats and bobs to the music at the Frenchtown Heritage Market in Tallahassee. The market has a central location where people using food stamps, now called SNAP Benefits, can cash them in for brightly colored plastic tokens to spend on produce. Jim Bellamy heads up the market. He leads me to a central table where Darci Washington is wait with a silver cash box.
“So you just come in, you swipe your card down and put in your pin number and put in $10. So we give you $10 and you get an extra $10 so we give you $20,” Washington says while counting out the tokens.
The French Town Heritage Market is part of a program that lets SNAP users stretch their dollar by doubling the amount they can spend. So under Washington’s example, someone who wants to spend $10 of their snap dollars would get $20 in buying power. Bellamy says it’s a great way to support members of the community who struggle to access fresh fruits and vegetables and it also helps to support the growers in the community. But despite the deal, Bellamy says attendance at the market isn’t growing as quickly as one might hope.
“Not yet. For several reasons. One is that a lot of people don’t know about it. The other thing is that this whole process is something that’s new to people. Especially in this area. You know if you live in New York or D.C. people go to the market. People here don’t go to the market,” Bellamy says.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville) has a bill he hopes will help with that, by making it even more common to see food stamps, or EBT cards accepted at farmer’s markets.
“This kind of sets the framework to make it an easier process. And again, you know, some farmers markets are using it, allow it, and some don’t. Hopefully this bill will kind of set the framework to say all farmers markets have the ability to do it,” Fullwood says.
Fullwood says the goal is to encourage healthier eating habits.
"You know one of the challenges that we see in low income communities is that there are these food deserts with a lack of fresh vegetables and healthy items in stores. Often times folks are shopping at convenience stores or just stores that don’t have a wide variety of fresh foods that contribute to healthy eating,” Fullwood says.
And Fullwood isn’t the only lawmaker with a bill aimed at tackling food deserts. Rep. David Santiago (R-Deltona) is filing a bill that would provide grants and loans to small grocery stores moving into food desserts.
“So we’re trying to lure them and help them going into area that we’re trying to target. So there’s a financial incentive there for entrepreneurs to go into areas that we want to tap into,” Santiago says.
Santiago says it’s a win-win for businesses and those in the state who are under served. And he says it could lead to job creation. Though he does admit the financial aspect of the bill could be a significant hurdle. Meanwhile, Fullwood says he’s feeling good about his bill. He says he's filed it several times before and claims it has never gotten a “no,” vote, but hasn’t been given enough priority to makes its way through both chambers.