Token economy: Portland organization's quest to bring healthy, local food to all

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PORTLAND — At a fold-up card table in the Maine Irish Heritage Center, where the city’s winter farmers market is held each Saturday morning, Crystal Washington swiped her EBT card and asked the attendant for $20 of wooden tokens, accepted by any vendor at the market.

Jennifer Czifrik, a Cultivating Community staffer, counted out $40 in tokens and slid them across the table with a smile.

Washington was confused, until Czifrik explained that the market doubles the amount of any Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) spending up to $20. Hence, the pile of tokens that filled the plastic sandwich bag in Washington’s hands.

Washington’s confusion transformed into something closer to shock, and then gratitude for the unexpected act, and for a moment she could scarcely speak. Her husband, John, gave her a hug in the middle of the market floor.

The token program that makes it possible for SNAP recipients to shop at the farmers market and the doubling program that expands their buying power are possible because of the work and partnerships pursued by Cultivating Community, a Portland organization dedicated to fighting hunger and supporting local agriculture.

Since August, Cultivating Community’s programs at the market have expanded the customer base for the market and won recognition, and funding, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Craig Lapine, the organization’s executive director. They’ve also made it easier for area residents to eat healthier.

“Really, it overwhelmed me when we got the doubling program,” Washington said. Her family of three is trying to eat better, she said. In summer they grow a small garden, but in winter, access to fresh, local produce is limited.

“I don’t want to buy tomatoes from Mexico,”  she said, and getting meat that meets the family’s desire to support local farmers is especially difficult.

Cultivating Community sponsors a range of programs to promote agricultural skills and experience among youth and refugee farmers, but the token program has been getting the most attention this winter.

Although Lapine said the work is well under way, the USDA announced Cultivating Community had received a $300,000 grant to support the token program on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Twenty-seven organizations around the country received the grants through the USDA’s Community Food Projects. Only five others received as much as Cultivating Community; $300,000 was the maximum allowed by the program.

The doubling program is funded by the Connecticut-based Wholesome Wave Foundation.

The USDA grant “sits at the intersection of a lot of the work that we’re doing” to encourage local sustainability and fight hunger, Lapine said. “We’re creating additional access points where people can get healthy food.”

Maine is the most food-insecure state in New England, and the third or fourth most food-insecure state in the country, he said. One in five Maine families are on the SNAP program, and without the token program, many wouldn’t consider the farmers market an option.

Since the program began in early August at the outdoor farmer’s market, “just to see the numbers and the new faces coming to the markets – and it’s only in its pilot season – has been amazing,” said Jaime Berhanu, who operates Lalibela Farm in Bowdoinham and helps organize the Portland Farmers Market Association.

Although about half of the token sales each week are from credit or debit cards (which don’t get doubled), Czifrik said, between five and 10 new customers come and pay with SNAP benefits every weekend. Most come back, she said.

Last Saturday, 52 customers bought $961 worth of tokens using SNAP, said Czifrik, Cultivating Community’s market assistant, who is also a small farmer.

The potential for local economic growth is “tremendous,” Lapine said. If SNAP benefits are spent at Walmart or another big store, “that dollar is on it’s way out of the state the next day, sometimes instantaneously,” he said. “If you spend with a local grower, the multiplier effects are enormous. Maybe we can use it as one stepping stone out of poverty. That’s one of the benefits of using federal aid to fund this stuff.”

Families, like the Washingtons, who take advantage of the token program help fight the stereotype that people on food stamps aren’t interested in buying fresh, nutritious food, Czifrik said.

The Washingtons, who live on one salary while trying to get a printing business off the ground and raising and homeschooling a 12-year-old daughter, filled their bags with lettuce, fresh cut basil, and tomatoes from one stand, then shallots and beets from another. They picked out cottage cheese and mozzarella from an organic farm in Turner, flour from a small grain mill, and finally ground beef from a New Gloucester farmer who threw in a package of sausage meat when he couldn’t make change for their tokens.

The added business has been nice, said Berhanu, the market association leader. But “it’s not about the market. The focus is getting better access to more people for healthy food.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

John and Crystal Washington smell a bag of fresh basil at the Portland winter farmers market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Saturday. The Washingtons said the farmers market and the token program run by Cultivating Community help their family eat better and buy locally grown produce, meat, and dairy.

Cultivating Community market assistant Jennifer Czifrik counts out tokens while a customer swipes her credit card at the Portland winter farmers market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Saturday. The card machine also accepts food stamp payments, and has made it easier for customers to shop at the market no matter how they pay.

Gloria Varney, right, owner of Nezinscot Farm in Turner, helps John Washington, center, and his wife Crystal pick out cheeses from her stand at the Portland winter farmers market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Saturday.

Dollar bills and wooden tokens mingle in the cash drawer at the stand of Olivia’s Garden, a New Gloucester farm that sells at the Portland winter farmers market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center each Saturday. Cultivating Community’s new token project, which received a $300,000 USDA grant, has opened up the market to a more diverse customer base. “It helps everybody,” said Olivia’s Garden employee Ben Ferri.