BALTIMORE – Senora Gray gives a quick scan before plucking three bunches of kale from a pile of fresh greens.
She surveys the apples, yellow squash and green beans with similar speed. The only pause during her five-minute shopping excursion at the Waverly Farmers’ Market is when she asks about paying.
At each vendor, Gray poses the same question.
“You take tokens, right?”
Gray, 56 and retired, is among the growing number of Baltimore residents converting food stamp benefits into wooden tokens for use at farmers’ markets across the city.
It’s part of a multi-pronged approach developed by foundations, activists and public health officials to make it easier for low-income Baltimoreans to find healthy foods — and it mirrors similar movements across the country.
The farmers’ market program is a new tool for health officials as they fight the obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes that plague the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“It’s the ideal situation for using food stamps. It’s fresh. It’s healthy and it’s local,” said Dan Whatley, a 24-year-old who visits the Waverly market about twice a month to shop with his benefits. “That’s what food stamps are all about.”
Three Baltimore markets launched food-stamp pilot programs this summer with $6,000 grants from the nonprofit Maryland Hunger Solutions. And though the food-stamp program is growing, some researchers say they’ll wait to see if the markets can draw enough food-stamp customers to have a substantial impact on the city’s profound health problems.
The pilot programs are wrapping up their first six months with mixed success: The well-established food bazaar in the Waverly neighborhood is flourishing. The two other much smaller markets — one in Highlandtown, in East Baltimore, and one in Park Heights on the city’s West Side — struggled to spread the word to their respective communities, market managers said.
At the Waverly Market, a year-round, Saturday-morning event with a large customer base, the food stamp program is gaining momentum.
Early in the summer, vendors cashed in about $800 in food stamp redemptions on a good weekend, said market manager Vernon Rey. That soared to more than $1,500 by the second weekend of November. And redemptions hit a record last Saturday. Traditionally the weekend before Thanksgiving is the market’s busiest day of the year, and the market had about $1,670 in food stamp transactions, Rey said.
The results of the Baltimore pilot are being studied closely by state and city officials and foundations and community activists alike. The lessons learned, they say, will be used to draw up a game plan to make more markets across the city capable of accepting food stamps.
It’s a movement that strikes at a stubborn issue: Many of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods do not have grocery stores. Public health officials refer to these urban expanses, where takeout restaurants and corner stores dominate the landscape, as food deserts.
And it’s in these food deserts where the city’s obesity rate is highest. City health statistics show that residents in low-income neighborhoods have high levels of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Farmers’ markets, advocates say, can serve as alternatives to grocery stores.
There’s no shortage of residents who could benefit from such programs. Baltimore is home to the largest number of food stamp recipients in the state, with nearly 29 percent of Baltimoreans receiving benefits, according to state data from September.
“The need and will is there,” Holly Freishtat, CQ the city’s food policy director, said of promoting the use of food stamps at local markets. “You can buy as much junk food as you want with food stamps. Why not healthy food?”
The farmers’ market programs might sound good, some researchers say, but they’re not the most efficient way to get fresh fruits and vegetables into underserved communities.
The markets are only open once a week and hard to get to for people without cars, said Joel Gittelsohn, CQ a professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s why efforts that encourage corner stores to offer healthier options could yield better results for the city’s population, Gittelsohn said.
“I don’t have to walk in any direction but two or three blocks before I hit a corner store. And they’re open six, seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” he said.
The food stamp programs also cost thousands to set up and maintain. Wireless machines needed to process transactions can cost up to $1,200. And money spent on advertising, staffing and incentives to lure low-income families unaccustomed to shopping at farmers’ markets all add up quickly.
Money for such programs generally flows from grants. The state and city don’t pay for the Baltimore program.
This year, the number of Maryland markets accepting food stamps jumped to nine, up from two in 2009. Markets in Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Harford counties all started taking food stamps this year. And Takoma Park added a second.
But moving forward, food-stamp access programs aren’t expected to “catch on like wildfire” in Maryland, said Amy Crone, a marketing specialist at the Maryland Department of Agriculture who oversees the roughly 120 farmers’ markets throughout the state.
Most Maryland markets, she said, are grassroots organizations that lack the structure needed to launch and maintain the food stamp programs.
One local market that is a candidate to expand the program is the West Baltimore MARC Farmers’ Market, which began this year. If the West Baltimore market becomes the next in the city to offer the program, it should have a built-in client base, said Corina Amato, who treks across town to shop at Waverly with her benefits.
“It makes sense. Everybody around here has food stamps,” she said.
Amato, 48, lives in Upton, a food desert bordering the MARC market. A 2008 city assessment of 55 neighborhoods identified Upton as having one of the highest death rates in Baltimore for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
“Even in the ‘hood, people want to have access to fresh food for their families,” Amato said.
Local markets could also find federal help next year. President Barak Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposal includes $4 million earmarked for food stamp access programs.
“If we can make sure that $4 million is included and not redlined out of the budget there will be some resources to jump start this,” said Stacy Miller, executive director of the national advocacy group Farmers’ Markets Coalition. “We need it to get the process going.”
David Saleh Rauf is a member of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Baltimore urban affairs reporting class. Classmate Holly Nunn contributed to this article. This story was distributed by Capital News Service.